Wielding the Budget Axe: It's Time to Abolish NASA

by Jim Grichar (aka Exx-Gman) by Jim Grichar

Apparently 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 Donald 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 budget deficit.

$15.4 billion and Rising to … $50 billion?

The 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.

President 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.

A History of Deathtraps and Boondoggles

NASA has a history of running expensive boondoggle programs, from the man on the moon program of the 1960’s–mid-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.

NASA 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.

Commercial Applications Depend on Private Demand

But 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?

And 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.

The 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 18–24 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.)

Thus, 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.

Abolishing NASA – What would happen?

President 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.

But 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 and engineers.

NASA's 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.

Other 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.

Most, 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.

NASA, 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.

In 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 was ending.

Jim 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 public. He teaches economics part-time at a community college and provides economic consulting services to the private sector.

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