Americans have long ignored the space program, only to have their interest momentarily reawakened by occasional news of yet another colossal failure, or announcements of grandiose plans to send people beyond Earth’s orbit.
The latter, playing upon Star Trek-fueled fantasies, inevitably come when NASA wants more money. Thus, NASA announced last month that it needs at least $10 billion per year of your tax dollars, this time, to put a base on the moon by 2024.
Without question, a base on the moon sounds infinitely more interesting than more space shuttle launches. After all, the shuttle doesn’t really go anywhere and only makes headlines for narrowly avoiding (and occasionally meeting with) tragic disaster.
But are there good reasons for you and me to pay for more moon missions, let alone spend $10 billion a year to build a base there, other than that it sounds neat?
One reason to think not is that NASA itself doesn’t seem to know why it wants to go.
That’s probably why NASA recently performed a study to come up with a list of 200 "lunar exploration objectives" — that is, things people could do on the moon if we went there. And the list is not persuasive.
At the top of NASA’s list is "expanding human civilization" — that is, preparing for the eventual human settlement of space. As a human and a fan of civilization, this sounds kind of good to me.
But who wants to live on the moon? Most people don’t want to live in the desert, or on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean, or in Kansas, because there isn’t anything or anyone around.
As Elton John and William Shatner have memorably noted in song, living in space would be far worse: no heat, no air, no water, no people, no trees — nothing.
Sure, maybe someday Earth will be so crowded or unpleasant that people would find it worth moving to the moon. But probably not. For example, even the most extreme global-warming scenarios wouldn’t make Earth nearly as uninhabitable as the moon. Anyway, until then, why take money from everyone for something that few people outside of sci-fi novels want to do?
Another reason NASA offers is scientific research. But a lot of scientific research could be done right here on Earth with $10 billion a year, and with a lot more practical value. It could be used to find cures for diseases, for example, or to develop other products of all kinds that could improve our lives.
Entrepreneurs would better know what to do with this money if it were left in the private sector, because to succeed they have to figure out what people really want so they can provide products that people will voluntarily buy. Whenever government removes resources from the market, it prevents entrepreneurs from serving consumers with those resources, and instead serves special interests and bureaucrats — like the people seeking job security at NASA who have their hands out for more money.
That’s why another one of NASA’s stated reasons for going to the moon, "economic expansion," is just silly. If it made economic sense to go to the moon for minerals and other resources, entrepreneurs would be doing that already. The profits from the minerals would be greater than the costs of developing and launching a spaceship, extracting the minerals and bringing them back. But spending $100 billion on spaceships to get, say, $50 billion in resources would be irrational — unless, of course, you’re in government and are not held accountable for your wasteful activities. Apparently that’s what NASA wants.
Still, I can’t deny that there’s something inherently exciting about the idea of space travel. I too enjoy Star Trek, Robert Heinlein novels and the like. But government’s efforts in space have entailed endless waste and repeated failure.
Sure, people someday will go to the moon and beyond. But we should go when we are wealthy enough here on Earth that no one needs to be forced to pay for it.
This article first appeared in the Baltimore Sun.