NASA: Exemplary of Government Waste


It is quickly becoming the natural state of affairs that citizens are no longer working for themselves but are instead laboring in order to fill the greedy coffers of the State. Most individuals in the United States have about half of their yearly income taken away by the government and this percentage is steadily growing. A majority of the citizenry may believe that these funds are being funneled into important social projects but in fact most of this wealth is simply wasted by opportunist politicians and bureaucrats. There are an endless number of government programs that would increase the wealth and productivity of the citizenry if they were only dismantled. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with a requested 2007 budget of almost $17 billion, is a government program that is nothing short of wasteful.

Individuals claim that a majority of NASA’s funding is spent on the exploration of new useful technologies. The citizenry views the government as an entity that can fund and perform research in order to uncover technologies that would be beneficial to the market. There is no reason to believe that corporations, with patent laws in place, would not be more than willing to research more efficient ways of creating products. Yet, even if it were the case that government research in technology was necessary or beneficial, NASA is funding scientific studies that are far from useful to the market. Much of NASA’s funding is spent directly on extraterrestrial initiatives that study the solar system, space exploration, and methods of improving shuttle performance. It is also a myth that NASA created such technologies as Velcro, Tang and those famous memory-cell mattresses. In reality, the maker of Velcro was a private engineer with a bright idea, Tang was created by the General Foods Corporation, and the Tempur-Pedic company developed those memory-cell mattresses for use on NASA flights. These were all private initiatives and not outcomes of NASA's technological research efforts. To their credit, NASA did develop freeze-dried ice cream but who likes those things anyway? NASA dedicates over two-thirds of its budget to space exploration and extraterrestrial research. The government agency has spent close to $150 billion dollars simply on the shuttle program, which calculates to about $1.3 billion per launch. This is a decent sum considering that the space shuttle program was sold to the taxpayers as only costing $5.5 million per launch. The question then arises, u201Cshould the United States citizens continue to pay for such a costly program?u201D In the end, it is always the citizenry who pays. Nave individuals may believe that the Federal government has an endless spring of wealth from which it draws in order to fund its operations, but this is not the case.

NASA has continuously let down the United States citizens and is nothing but a wastebasket into which the government throws our hard-earned wealth. The NASA shuttle tragedies are an outright shame, not only because of the precious lives lost, but also due to the immense cost of these shuttles. The costs of these space ventures are steep and the rewards reaped from these explorations are close to nil. The Mars Observer, that was lost in 1993, cost the taxpayers nearly $1 billion dollars. What the government can not understand is the profit and loss mechanism that is so ingrained into the market. Private entrepreneurs produce goods in a way that minimizes costs in order to obtain a high profit margin. Government programs, such as NASA, continuously spend without giving any benefit to the public. One may say that the simple existence of shuttle programs are a psychological benefit to society but this does not justify the coercive collection of taxes from citizens who may or may not be willing to donate to such a program. When government collects tax revenue, it does not allocate the funds to where citizens demand but instead the funds are spent where politicians desire. Not to mention the fact that much of this funding is lost in the shuffle between citizen and program and wind up in the golden pockets of pork-barrelers.

NASA, like all government programs, becomes increasingly less efficient as time goes by and its purpose becomes less clear. The space shuttle programs may have once accomplished significant scientific discoveries but this is no longer evident. In addition, the social reward of these programs, regardless of what scientific feats they accomplished, are to be measured by a cost-profit analysis and not arbitrary merit. NASA’s space exploration programs have continued to fail and this is only understandable to those aware of the lack of incentives present in the public sector. Government, unlike the capitalist market, has little incentive to strive for successful output and may often times overlook the many systematic failures present in the execution of these programs. The public sector inherently has less of an economic incentive to keep costs low and profits high. NASA knows that funding will continue, at least for the coming year, and pushes on promises rather than accomplishments in order to receive funding. On the other hand, the private sector functions on accomplishments, the achievement of its goals, and keeping costs at a minimum while maximizing profits. The failure of the NASA program is inevitably tied to the fact that it is not a private company; it has much less of an economic incentive than those companies that are furthest away from the government's grasp.

In addition, the current President, with a projected 2007 fiscal budget of $2.8 trillion, has shown no sign that the government will decrease spending in the near future. President Bush stated on June 16, 2004 that

we will explore space to improve our lives and lift our national spirit. Space exploration is also likely to produce scientific discoveries in fields from biology to physics, and to advance aerospace and a host of other industries. This will help create more highly skilled jobs, inspire students and teachers in math and science, and ensure that we continue to benefit from space technology, which has already brought us important improvements.

The President’s hopes are sadly misplaced, there is no evidence proving that NASA funds improve technologies in any marketable industries. Any jobs produced by NASA funding will simply be a misallocation of labor. It should be up to the market, with its profit and loss mechanisms, to decide were labor should be properly allocated including the labor of highly skilled scientists. In addition, $17 billion dollars should not be arbitrarily spent in order to “lift our national spirit” through space exploration but should instead be given back to the taxpayers and allow them to lift their own spirits with the wealth.

The solution the problem of NASA overspending and endless mishaps is, like all government programs, privatization. If the citizenry, through the market process, find it profitable to invest and consume products that are tied to space exploration, so be it. In such a scenario no individual is forced to pay for products that continuously fail to meet their expectations. In addition, private companies that take on the task of space exploration will be doing so at a profit and trying to minimize cost. This is significantly different from the wasteful practices of government and public sector programs. Whenever costs outweigh profits, precious resources have been wasted in the production of that good or service. In the private sector, entrepreneurs quite literally pay the price for having misused resources and the costs will cut into the entrepreneur's income. If this occurs, either changes are to be made in order to cut costs or the entrepreneur will need to shut down the business. When public sector industries waste resources, often times no direct harm is done to their ability to continue the misuse of funding. Any punishment comes down from the legislature and usually comes with multi-millions of dollars in addition funding. It is a time-proven fact that when a private sector company fails, they go out of business yet if a public sector industry fails, they get additional funding.

In order to save the taxpayer from having to pay the increasing costs of a hopeless space exploration program, simply disband NASA and allow the market to decide if such practices are needed in society. If the market decides that these services are in fact desired then it will take hold of these projects while trying to reduce the use of valuable resources. This is becoming evident in the success of SpaceShipOne's flight in 2004. SpaceShipOne showed the world that the market can do marvelously what NASA has, time and time again, continuously failed to accomplish. The success of SpaceShipOne also spurred the creation of another private space exploration program, Virgin Galactic, that intends to send private individuals into space. Currently, the price of travel into space with Virgin Galactic is $200,000. That is right, $200,000. Not only is Virgin not doing this at a cost (if they were it would quickly fail) but they are allowing private individuals to take part in an experience that was only granted to government scientists. In addition, the risk of these spacecrafts will, in time, diminish as corporations feel an increasing need to secure their customers or else suffer heavy loses. Safety is a hefty concern for individuals who are risking their lives and money in order to partake in an emerging industry. Space shuttles Columbia and Challenger illustrate that even though NASA engineers might only want the best for its passengers, safety has not been such a prime concern as to prevent any of these tragic moments from occurring.

In summation, in order to roll back the growing tide of government spending, the most wasteful programs must be cut first. What is needed from such public sector failures as NASA is not increased funding and wasteful behavior but full privatization. Only when this occurs will resources be used efficiently, will there be increased emphasis on consumer safety on extraterrestrial flights, and an end to the coercive sequestering of funds from taxpayers to prop up a failed program. It is time to put the industry of space exploration to the ultimate test: that of the market economy. The market, not the government, will be the true decider as to the existence of such an industry. It seems that the market is declaring that space exploration can be not only profitable but safe. If this is so, then so be it; it might be possible one day for all citizens to afford flights into the far reaches of space. What is important is to allow consumers, not bureaucrats, to decide where precious resources should go. It is time to end the government finance of wasteful public space exploration and to forevermore dismantle NASA.

September 20, 2006

Alexander Villacampa [send him mail] is a sophomore in economics at the University of Florida and summer fellow at the Mises Institute.