Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sailing the Seas of Titan, and Super Bowl Couch Potatoes

"NASA Selects Investigations For Future Key Planetary Mission"
NASA press release (May 5, 2011)

"NASA has selected three science investigations from which it will pick one potential 2016 mission to look at Mars' interior for the first time; study an extraterrestrial sea on one of Saturn's moons; or study in unprecedented detail the surface of a comet's nucleus.

"Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct its mission's concept phase or preliminary design studies and analyses. After another detailed review in 2012 of the concept studies, NASA will select one to continue development efforts leading up to launch. The selected mission will be cost-capped at $425 million, not including launch vehicle funding.

"NASA's Discovery Program requested proposals for spaceflight investigations in June 2010. A panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers reviewed 28 submissions. The selected investigations could reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes. Three technology developments for possible future planetary missions also were selected.

" 'NASA continues to do extraordinary science that is re-writing textbooks,' said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. 'Missions like these hold great promise to vastly increase our knowledge, extend our reach into the solar system and inspire future generations of explorers.'

"The planetary missions selected to pursue preliminary design studies are:...

"...-- Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) would provide the first direct exploration of an ocean environment beyond Earth by landing in, and floating on, a large methane-ethane sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Ellen Stofan of Proxemy Research Inc. in Gaithersburg, Md., is principal investigator. Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., would manage the project...."

The idea of sailing the seas of Titan, vicariously, grabs the Lemming's imagination. As a change of pace, though, the Lemming will opine about dollars and sense, instead of dreams and science.

"$425 million" for part of the Discovery program is a whole lot of money: compared to the Lemming's annual household expenses.

A "million" is 1,000,000 of something. (Princeton's WordNet) So "$425 million" is $425,000,000. That's still a lot of money.

For the Lemming. Probably for you, too.

But the United States federal government has quite a bit of money to spend: as the Lemming was reminded last April 15.

Last year, the feds spent about 3,720.7 billion dollars. (source: 467 - Federal Budget--Receipts and Outlays, Federal Gov't Finances & Employment: Federal Budget--Receipts, Outlays, and Debt, "The 2011 Statistical Abstract," U.S. Census Bureau)

Since the United States federal government is likely to use the American English dialect, "billion" most likely means 1,000,000,000. (Princeton's WordNet) So in 2010, the federal government spent around $3,720,700,000,000. That's quite a lot of money, too. Comparing the two numbers:

$425,000,000 - NASA's Discovery program, as discussed in that press release.

$3,720,700,000,000 - what the federal government spent in 2010, roughly.

The Lemming is no rocket scientist, but it looks like the Discovery program would cost (425/3720700) of the 2010 federal budget, which is a pretty small number. The Discovery program, that is. Something in the neighborhood of 0.0001, or 1/100 of one percent, if the Lemming did the math right.

Still, not spending money on the Discovery program would help cut the federal budget down to something rational. Just like scooping a bucket of water out of the Titanic would have helped. Bad example, maybe, and the Lemming is not going to get sidetracked.

On the other hand, NASA's Discovery program would be spending more than twice what was put into Super Bowl advertising in 2010: about $205,200,000. (source: Kantar Media)

It's not an either-or situation, not even close, but the Lemming thinks it's interesting to consider which is more important: learning more about one corner of the universe, or seeing two year's worth of nifty Super Bowl ads?

And make no mistake: some very serious talent goes into making those television commercials.

The Lemming thinks that even if NASA folds entirely, it's only a matter of time before somebody finds a profit motive for going to Titan. $425,000,000 isn't 'petty cash,' but it's not all that big a percentage of a large company's budget, either.

And that is yet another topic.

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