Wielding the Budget Axe: It’s Time to Abolish NASA
Jim Grichar (aka Exx-Gman)
by Jim Grichar
willing to bribe virtually any possible voter in order to get re-elected,
George Bush has decided to go after the Star Trek and scientist
vote with his proposal for launching more robotic satellites into
space, sending men to the moon again and subsequently sending them
on a mission to Mars. But neither the President nor supporters of
this revamped NASA space program have come up with any real justification
for continuing a multi-billion dollar boondoggle other than saying
that it is our destiny to explore the solar system and beyond (see
Lambro’s Washington Times commentary). As that appears
to be the only reason to continue funding NASA, taxpayers should
demand that the whole program be abolished to reduce the federal
billion and Rising to ... $50 billion?
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been around
since the late 1950's, and it has gobbled up billions of dollars
to develop and launch various types of satellites and manned space
craft, including the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft as well
as the space shuttle. Nearly half of NASA’s $15.4 billion fiscal
year 2004 budget goes for developing and launching satellites that
are either used in scientific experiments or gathering other data.
Satellite missions are used to observe deep space, other planets
or for observing the earth and conducting measurements of this planets’
temperature, etc. The other half of the NASA budget is used for
space flight, and that includes the space shuttle.
Bush proposes to reprogram a large part of the NASA budget by abolishing
the space shuttle by the end of this decade and ending U.S. funding
of the international space station. In other words, he proposes
to end the funding of several major failures and use that, plus
an extra 5 percent per year for the next five years, to fund more
dubious projects, including new robotic satellites plus the new
missions to the moon and then Mars. Since the mission to Mars would
not start until 2020, one wonders what additional funds will be
needed down the pike to fund that endeavor. Manned space flight
is the most expensive way of gathering scientific information, and
initial estimates of the costs of manned space projects most recently
the space shuttle have always been well below the final costs.
Given the complexity of developing manned systems for safe interplanetary
travel, taxpayers could reasonably expect NASA’s budget to at least
double if not triple by the time a flight to Mars has begun.
History of Deathtraps and Boondoggles
has a history of running expensive boondoggle programs, from the
man on the moon program of the 1960'smid-1970's (three men
lost their lives early in that program), to the colossal, costly
and deadly space shuttle program (13 or 14 astronauts have lost
their lives and the shuttle cannot put satellites into orbit for
less than the Europeans or the Chinese), to the wasted billions
on the international space station, the soon to be shut-down Hubble
telescope, and other failed satellite missions. In fact, NASA is
essentially nothing more than a lobbying arm for the public funding
of expensive science projects and subsidies to the aerospace industry.
supporters will vigorously challenge the characterization of their
programs as boondoggles, often piping up about all the wonderful
spinoffs from various space programs that have occurred and the
invaluable scientific data obtained from such projects. These supporters
cite such inventions as the hand-held calculator, the miniaturization
of electronic circuits, advances in medical techniques, telecommunications
satellites, improved weather forecasting, and other examples.
Applications Depend on Private Demand
NASA technology, like any technology developed in government-funded
research and development programs, is generally not useful to the
private sector in bringing new goods and services to the consumer.
Over the years, in response to prodding by members of Congress and
various administrations, federal laboratories those operated by
the military and civilian arms of the government have repeatedly
been put under pressure to transfer technologies developed with
public funds to the private sector. While a few examples of success
exist, the general rule is that the private sector wants nothing
to do with technologies developed in federal labs. And this is true
for several reasons. The technologies while sounding promising are often not tailored to bringing specific goods and services
to consumers. To make new technologies into new products attractive
to consumers, private firms would probably have to spend additional
funds on research and development possibly huge amounts, and even
then most firms prefer to use proprietary or patented techniques
or technologies in order to earn a better profit. In other words,
why use some technology available to every other business, unless
you can couple it with some proprietary technique to give you an
edge over the competition?
then there are historical examples of advanced technologies being
developed and fielded by the private sector before the federal government,
or anyone in a federal laboratory, even thought of them. For instance,
anyone old enough to remember knows that the old AT&T in its
Bell Laboratory subsidiary paid for the launch of the world’s
first telecommunications satellite, Telstar, in 1962, and that proved
to be such a commercial success that Ma Bell launched others like
it. It was only many years later that the Defense Department decided
it needed its own set of communications satellites for running a
U.S. military deployed around the world. I would concede that government-developed
rockets were used in launching Telstar, but that same scientific
and engineering talent had it not been monopolized by the government might well have developed commercial launch vehicles to meet private
sector demands at around the same time. In other words, commercial
demand was the real spur to the development of useful and economical
satellite launch vehicles.
field of electronic circuits, and their miniaturization, is another
example often cited by NASA supporters as having important spinoffs
to the private sector. A good friend of mine both an electronics
engineer and an economist suggested that the space and defense
programs led to an emphasis on miniaturization of electronic circuits
that would not have occurred as quickly. I would counter that the
development of transistor radios and small portable television sets
in the late 1950's and early 1960's led the trend towards miniaturization
that later took advantage of integrated circuits and semiconductors
by using them in consumer products. The great hand-held calculator
boom actually started in the early 1970's after a key semiconductor
manufacturing process and other design insights (such as Moore’s
law, which states that the number of transistors on an integrated
circuit doubles every 1824 months) were discovered and used
to produce consumer products. Once again, commercial markets were
the real spur to innovation, not government-funded science projects.
The same can be said for personal computers, the development of
the Internet, and wireless telecommunications (more than ten years
ago, I talked to a Motorola engineer who carried one of his firm’s
early cell phones, and I suggested to him that Motorola’s goal was
to miniaturize the phone into an equivalent of the comic strip detective
Dick Tracy’s wrist radio and sell it to everyone. Hearing my comment,
he looked back at me and grinned, saying that I was correct.)
the argument that the civilian space program or for that matter
any government research program has led to major benefits for
consumers is not as simple nor nearly as clear cut as the proponents
make it. The fact is that most of those benefits were provided by
the private sector, which used otherwise useless technology or revamped
that technology to make it valuable to consumers.
NASA What would happen?
Bush’s latest proposal to reprogram and add money to the NASA budget
is just another attempt to give new life to an old boondoggle. By
saving manned space flight via a proposal to explore another planet,
Bush is attempting to save jobs in Texas (the Johnson Space Flight
Center) and other areas and provide continued employment in the
aerospace industry. He clearly wants to lock up the Star Trek and
engineering/science vote for 2004.
what would likely happen if taxpayers forced the closure of NASA?
First, NASA scientists and engineers as well as those in the aerospace
industry would be forced to work in the private sector and thus
turn their attention to bringing out new products and services for
consumers, products and services that consumers could afford to
buy and that would be useful to them, not just useful to a few scientists
existing laboratories and facilities would likely go out of business
as their budgets were abolished, although the private sector to
the extent it judged it profitable might bid for those resources.
One area where the private sector might take over NASA resources
is in earth sciences, where robot satellites are used to gain information
about the earth, including temperature readings and geological assessments.
Commercial demand exists for more accurate weather forecasts and
for geological and geographical information, and these government-employed
resources might well be profitably useful in the private sector.
NASA laboratories, most often conducting research that is less directly
applicable to commercial products, would either go out of business
or be bought up by universities, defense or aerospace firms or other
private foundations that might be interested in funding such efforts.
if not all, of the manned space effort would probably be halted.
Given the fact that robot satellites can do most of the things that
the exceedingly more expensive manned flights can do, it would not
make much sense for the private sector, at this time, to spend the
multi-billions it would take to run such an effort. Someday, with
the right prices and costs, the private sector will undertake manned
space flight, but not until it pays.
like other government programs, promises a lot but delivers far
less than it costs taxpayers. Instead of expanding the program and
giving it a new lease on life, the public should pressure Congress
to send President Bush a message and abolish the whole agency as
NASA has not, and cannot, deliver what it promises.
a time of record and possibly rising budget deficits, the Congress
ought to commit the savings from NASA towards reducing the deficit.
Such a move would not only save the public money but would also
alert the various lobbyists and other porkmeisters that the days
of being conned into throwing taxpayers' money away on useless projects
Grichar (aka Exx-Gman) [send
him mail], formerly an economist with the federal government,
writes to "un-spin" the federal government's attempt to con the
teaches economics part-time at a community college and provides
economic consulting services to the private sector.
© 2004 LewRockwell.com