Bush's Mission to Mars

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Earlier this week I had the opportunity to debate President Bush’s proposal for a manned mission to Mars with a representative of the Boeing Company, who was also an astronaut in the Shuttle program. What follows below is a rough transcript of my opening and closing statements and my answers to questions from the moderator and audience:

Opening Statement:

I am a big fan of space exploration, astronomy, and science fiction. As an undergraduate college student I spent some of my hard-earned money to become a charter member of Carl Sagan’s Planetary Society. I come from a state (Alabama) that is heavily involved in space exploration and a college (Auburn University) that boasts eight astronauts amongst its alumni.

However, I cannot support President Bush’s proposal for a manned space mission to Mars. Manned missions are incredibly expensive compared to unmanned missions which can accomplish similar tasks more quickly. Manned missions have also resulted in several accidents involving the loss of crews and their crafts. In our current "manned" program we have a shuttle to supply a space station and we have a space station (where only limited perfunctory scientific research is conducted) in order to give the shuttle something to do. Is it any wonder that former astronaut Philip Chapman labeled the human spaceflight program "an exercise in futility?" Given that we have hardly mastered the environs around earth, it is foolhardy to establish and commit to such a distant and potentially dangerous mission. NASA has even had endemic problems with their unmanned projects, such as losing the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, and the fiascos with the Infrared and Hubble Telescopes.

The cost of the proposal is wildly underestimated. The press release version speaks of a $1 billion commitment over five years. Later a $11 billion figure is revealed, but even this amount has to be taken with a grain of salt. NASA has extensively proven that it is not unlike government in general — slow, inefficient, and hopelessly ineffective — where delays, cost overruns, and accidents are regular features of everyday life. The Shuttle was supposed to take cargo up into space at 7% of the cost of using rockets, but it has actually cost three times as much as rockets and the program is currently in mothballs awaiting safety clearance following the Columbia disaster. A more realistic estimate would be much higher, just to make the attempt, and there would be no money-back guarantee for taxpayers if there was an accident or it was otherwise a failure.

The mission to Mars is therefore a very costly adventure without any well-defined goals or expectations other than it would be a really cool thing to do. We can look at the cost in three ways:

  1. If we do spend the money it will mean higher taxes, and in all likelihood higher deficits and a larger national debt. Unlike taxes, citizens do not have a good "feel" for the impact of deficits, but government budget deficits lead to some combination of higher interest rates, trade deficits, and a depreciating dollar (inflation). When you read about an economic problem in the newspaper, chances are that the cause was government spending beyond its means.
  2. When money is spent on a program such as space exploration, it means that we have foregone the other possible uses of those resources. In this case we have given up some very valuable resources. Virtually an entire generation of scientists, engineers, and technical experts were wasted over the last 35 years (1/2 trillion of today’s dollars) without completing any of the major possibilities and plans that were drawn up in the wake of Apollo 11. These were some of the smartest and most dedicated members of our society and they could have accomplished so much for the betterment of mankind had they not been enrolled in the NASA bureaucracy. What diseases could have been eradicated? What technologies could have been developed? What new products could have been produced? The mission to Mars promises to bureaucratize the next generation of these talented people and throw away most of their potential to help mankind.
  3. Another alternative is that space exploration could be turned over to the private sector, which is very eager to participate despite the disadvantage of NASA’s monopoly position. The private sector approach would be less costly and more effective. Entrepreneurs would be better able to choose the best targets for exploration and the best goals to be accomplished. Only the private sector is capable of achieving the potential that space exploration presents and that NASA has failed to achieve.

If we ever hope to fully explore the Solar System and beyond, to reach Mars, and to make effective use of space resources, we must abandon the NASA approach and encourage our private space exploration industry and the commercialization of space. This mission will tie up the careers of thousands of engineers and other theoretical and technical experts for the next thirty years (if it is on schedule) at which time many of the mysteries of Mars and the solar system could already be answered. Therefore, I not only reject President Bush’s $11 billion proposal, I advocate the dismantling of NASA in favor of the private sector’s efforts at space exploration.

Question: Bush’s proposal calls for only $11 or $12 billion of additional funding over a period of several years. Much of the cost will come out of NASA’s existing budget. Is that really "expensive" in a federal budget that exceeds $2 trillion?

I have to admit that with all the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government is wasting, it is hard to muster the energy to argue against a few additional billion. I reiterate that the real cost is not just a dollar amount, but all the things that could be produced if the proposal is rejected. This is an enormous amount of scientific and technical ability that could otherwise be used in the private sector to produce important discoveries and help keep the US economy number one in the world. In contrast to conventional wisdom which sees government budgets as a benefactor to science, the economic view shows that every dollar government spends on science actually hurts the progress of science and scientific discovery because scientific resources are diverted away from where they are needed most into nonperforming bureaucracies. We must also consider the fact that estimated or projected budgets are almost universally inaccurate and vastly underestimate the true cost of programs. For example, the International Space Station was more than 500% over budget and is still incomplete after twenty years. The actual cost of the Shuttle moving resources into space was underestimated by a factor of twenty. Based on current estimates of the total cost of going to Mars ($170 billion) the true cost could easily mount to $1 trillion.

Question: You suggest that the private sector be put in charge of space exploration. What evidence can you provide that the private sector would be better at such a task, or even that the private sector is even interested in space exploration?

Economists have done extensive research comparing public and private enterprise and almost with out exception this body of evidence finds in favor of private enterprise. This is particularly true in areas of scientific research, product development and exploration. For example, Jonathan Karpoff examined the nearly one hundred public and private expeditions that explored the artic region and found some telling results. He even noted that there "are many parallels between exploration of outer space in recent decades and of arctic regions in the last century." He found that almost all of the major arctic discoveries were made by private ventures and most of the tragedies were government ventures. The fatality rate of the crews and the percentage of sunken ships was more than 50% higher on government expeditions. Debilitation by scurvy was 300% higher among government crews. He found that the successes of private ventures and the failures of public ventures were based on the differences in motivation, bureaucracy, adaptability, and incentives.1

Even if NASA was efficient and effective, space exploration is not a proper function of government in a free society. It is my position that space exploration is best undertaken by the private sector. Entrepreneurs are in the best position to judge the proper targets for space exploration and the best means to achieve those ends. Private entrepreneurs can and do economize. In contrast, NASA does not have the ability to calculate profit and loss, or risk and reward. NASA has the handicap of maintaining an ever-growing bureaucracy. It also suffers from the political reality that politicians decide their missions, based not on science or on the development of useful technology, but on their own reelection prospects.

Question: You claim that the mission will be inordinately expensive and produce little in the way of tangible results, but how about all the intangibles, technological developments, and commercial opportunities that seem to arise out of the space program and its various missions?

Intangibles do matter. As in the days of seafarers exploring the artic in search of the North Pole or the Northwest Passage, or those that took to flight, many of today’s private-sector space explorers are motivated by scientific curiosity, the prestige of successful missions, lucrative book contracts, and prizes established for scientific accomplishment. The X-Prize, a $10 million reward for the first crew to fly two successful missions into space funded exclusively with private resources, is a good example. The willingness of people to pay $20 million for a ride into space and other "amusement park" developments indicate that there is significant commercial and non-commercial interest in space.

It is also true that NASA has taken the credit for the invention of a large variety of products, or at least the research and technologies that were important inputs into the development of those products. The important point to remember is that we would not necessarily have gone without all these products and may have achieved them earlier without NASA. For example, government is often given credit for developing the Internet, but the idea of connecting and communicating between computers was not new. The private sector was already developing a detailed blueprint of the Internet despite being hampered by the fact that the bulk of computers and computer scientists were in the hands of government. Furthermore, it was the private sector that really developed the Internet into a valuable commodity. Fortunately government scientists did not get their wish of prohibiting the commercial use of the Internet.

Privately organized space exploration would produce far more spin off products of greater value and be quicker to market. USA Today just featured an entrepreneur who has spent more than $200 million trying to bring a flying car to market, but who is yet to launch even a prototype despite many years of development. However, despite his failure to bring a product to market, he has discovered enough spin off technologies to keep his company afloat. The superiority of private ventures is not a matter of faith; it is the cold reality of economic logic. The entrepreneur must risk his own money and is answerable to the consumer and stockholder. Hence he must produce or be replaced. The government bureaucrat has none of these automatic checks on behavior. The result is habitual cost overruns, persistent delays, lost opportunities and regular disasters.

Closing Statement: History has shown that many of the great societies of the past have tightly controlled science only to find themselves bypassed by progress because they failed to use their scientific and technological discoveries in profitable ways for the benefit of the general population. Industrial revolutions only occur in markets, not bureaucracies. The only path to revolutionizing space is to drop the bureaucratic approach of NASA and to step out of the way of private initiative.

George Bush’s proposal to go to the moon is nothing more than what one critic called "election year candy." We have a growing consensus in the scientific community that NASA is the roadblock to progress in space. A recent Time/CNN poll indicates that only 9% of those surveyed supported increased funding for space exploration and that the vast majority oppose the mission to Mars. This all reflects a growing recognition of government failure and presents an opportunity to establish the market’s role in space exploration and the successful commercialization of space. This success would represent progress in its own right and provide a valuable example of the benefits of the market’s discovery process that would be out of this world.

Links to Thornton’s Star Wars Articles:

  1. Jonathan Karpoff, "Public versus Private Initiative in Arctic Exploration: The Effects of Incentives and Organization Structure," Journal of Political Economy, February 2001, pp. 38-78.

Mark Thornton [send him mail] is an economist who lives in Auburn, Alabama. He is author of The Economics of Prohibition, is a senior fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and is the Book Review Editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is co-author of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War.

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