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Bush, Again, Does Exactly the Wrong Thing

Why NASA should be scrapped.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 15, 2004

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Bush, Again, Does Exactly the Wrong Thing_James Leroy Wilson-Why NASA Should Be Scrapped The man just won’t stop, will he? I’m talking about our humble President, the man of free enterprise who saved America from the Stalinist Al Gore in the 2000 election. Once he ascended to the White House, he apparently found the power, and $2 trillion of loot to work with, very much to his liking. Expand education spending. Expand Medicare entitlements. Increase, again, the dependency of the American farmer on federal funding and control. Start new wars and overseas commitments. Strike up the trade barriers. Spy on his own people. Repeal the First Amendment, the right to dissent, with the stroke of a pen.

Yet all of these projects have their defenders, as the political climate favors hyper-nationalism and watered-down socialism. And no doubt many of the President’s actions were done with the best of intentions. Who isn’t for helping the children, and the elderly, and the farmer? Who isn’t for protecting our nation from foreign tyrants and terror? Who isn’t for protecting jobs? Who isn’t for protecting ourselves from domestic terrorists and criminals? Who isn’t for cleansing politics from the taint of financial influences? Yes, President Bush has made himself the most powerful man in the history of the world, and the most dictatorial of Presidents since Lincoln, but at least he’s doing it for good causes.

Of course, everything the President has accomplished, achieved, or will achieve, the exact opposite of his best intentions. America will be dumber, poorer, less secure, and more corrupt because of this Administration. But it doesn’t end there.

For the President wants to commit the USA to projects of supreme pointlessness - moon-bases and manned missions to Mars. The budget deficit, as it now stands, just isn’t big enough for Mr. Bush.

Our entire space program was developed as a means of competition with the Soviet Union. I could see two reasons the realists and anti-communists of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations could justify a space program. The first would be, to prevent the USSR from controlling it, and developing space-based weapons and missile defenses to lord over us, not to mention perhaps developing satellite technologies and monopolizing satellite launches. The second reason would be for reasons purely domestic and political: if the Communists were able to do such wonderful things as explore space and America didn’t, the hard Left would have yet another reason to spread the myth of Communist glory.

I think there were two other factors. The third is inter-related with the second: the belief that it would, indeed, be wonderful for Americans if they could see Americans explore space and go to the moon. This is the ideology of “common mission” and “national purpose.” And the fourth is, the discoveries of science and the innovations in technology in both the missions to space themselves, yet also in developing the means to make the journey.

The first two reasons do not exist anymore. The USSR is defunct, and the countries with active space programs are not in ideological competition with each other. Besides, even though the USA got to the moon, that did not change the ideological equation; after all, NASA is a government program, as was the USSR’s space program. If a private company had been allowed to, and reached the moon, that would have been a more severe blow to the Communist mindset, much as how Bobby Fischer could become Chess’s World Champion, or the USA hockey team, with marginal to no government funding, defeated the Soviet-funded professionals in the 1980 Olympics. Our moon landing was actually followed by a decade of Soviet aggression and dominance in world affairs, and “malaise“ in America; our Gold Medal victory was followed by American ascendancy and the crumbling of the Soviet Union. As an object of patriotism, our space program is highly over-rated.

The fourth reason, scientific advance, is also over-rated. Technological advancement can come from three motives: profit, curiosity, and necessity (as in, necessity is the mother of invention). I have no doubt that many technological breakthroughs came from the space program, especially during the Cold War years when it might have been seen as a political “necessity” to have the program. That’s why the USSR, to the extent it was good at anything, was best in its military and space programs, for they, too, saw the “necessity” in the enterprise: I/we have to find a way to build the faster fighter plane, or the better rocket, lest the Americans defeat us.

But that level of necessity is no longer present in the space program. If the Chinese reach the moon, Americans, I don’t think, would care. They’d probably be more disgusted at the Chinese for spending so much for that vanity, while many of their own people still live in great poverty.

And that is at the heart of the problem. For the sake of the argument, I will grant the position of the socialist: that government has a responsibility to advance scientific knowledge for the betterment of humankind. Fine. In a world of scarce resources, where should this money go, for a manned mission to Mars, or to cancer research?

Let’s extend the logic: some pro-NASA advocates grant the high costs and the human dangers of manned space flight, but that funding should go to robotic missions and telescopes. I give these advocates some credit for common sense.

But even still, what is it about any of these explorations that actually build on the socialist dream of having the government improve the human condition? What have the experiments on the space shuttle wrought? And even as we are better able to learn more and more about space, and build our understanding of, say, the age of the universe, how does that compare to, say, finding cures for diabetes and AIDS?

I will grant that NASA has done much for the science of astronomy, and provides information that make for good "Nova" episodes on PBS. But is it worth the cost? And, essentially, the dollar amount isn’t the issue: at any price, aren’t there greater priorities in a world of limited resources?

Seen in this light, government-supported space programs seem to mainly cater to the curious, and do not advance those things that government is supposed to advance.

And because of that, I think, if there is anything people want from space, whether it be mineral resources on the moon or elsewhere, or a telescope that can see to the end of the universe, or money from space tourism, these ought to be left to private hands. People should assume their own risks of space launches and space travel. Insurance companies may or may not get involved, depending on how they assess the risks.

I suspect that, if space is such a great place for us to explore, we do not need the coercion of tax dollars, dollars that could go to other things, to explore it. The ambitious, and the dare-devils, and the corporations seeking mining rights or high ticket prices for a cruise around the solar system, can all conspire, as they have in the past to explore the seas and fly around the world.

If Americans want to go to outer space, let them, and if they die out there, that was their own risk. But we don’t need government to help them or subsidize them. Whether in tax cuts or spending on more pressing programs, NASA is no longer necessary. It is a luxury we can’t afford.

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ET from Home writes:
January 15, 2004
Regarding the comments about China made towards the last of your article-and I know of what I speak. Americans - security conscious Americans - would definitely be concerned about Chinese on the Moon.

News note-as recent as today: China has plans to launch 14 satellites this year. No country-even us launches that many satellites without the preponderance of them being military.

News note -as recent as today- the Chair of the Joints Chiefs did not visit the Chinese Space Center yesterday just for his health or good egg drop soup. We - the U.S. - are worried about technology sold to the Chinese by Clinton being able to do a number on OUR satellites.

Despite various American leaders bending over backwards for Chinese in trade matters, these same leaders KNOW that the Chinese military poses a serious threat to our satellite capability. If you think these people are peace-loving just because they don't wave little red books in the air - think again.

Bush - who could care less about the Moon or Mars is definitely not going to let the Chinese occupy a strategic location on the Moon unless they share it with us!

Jonathan Wilson from Chicago writes:
January 15, 2004
Obviously, James Leroy Wilson and I disagree, as I wrote just as strongly in favor of a manned Mars mission as he has against it. This is a reflection of the function of the Partial Observer, and I think it makes for an entertaining read.

Regarding E.T. comments, I did not address the Chinese space program at all. In terms of broader policy realities, we do need to realize that China has its own goals and ambitions which may or may not be compatible with America's goals and ambitions. A Communist regime governs over one billion people. That needs reckoning in terms of American policy.

I agree with E.T. that we should not let China, under its current ideology, to leap-frog ahead of the USA in terms of a space race. To lose the strategic initiative in space to the Communists, any Communists, would be foolish. Hopefully, Chinese competence will become useful to a broader human mission of collaboration, as have the Russians in the construction of the space station.

S.E. Shepherd from Chicago, IL writes:
January 16, 2004
The privatization of space exploration will not work for one simple reason - no government would allow it. In this era of “Code Orange” paranoia, how favorable would an individual or even corporation look stockpiling rocket fuel and other projectile equipment? Bush and the Patriot Act will not allow private citizens to develop a “space program” in their backyard. Even during the Cold War, when the “space race” was at its highest, independent comapnies creating their own rocket would have been investigated for “Communist sympathies” and most surely been shut down “for national security reasons.” It was easy to build your own boat in the Middle Ages, sail to places unknown, and establish trade routes without raising concerns from your government (no king was afraid you’d use your boat to attack your own country). It is far more difficult in the 21st century (so far) to build your own rocket and launch it to outerspace without raising all sorts of national security risks.

Though in an altruistic sense, space exploration is a purely scientific endeavor, many of the technological breakthroughs created by NASA have had military implications. Advances in propulsion and communication have made our military the best in the world. If space exploration were privatized, what stops those technology secrets being sold to the highest bidder?

NASA is still needed, but perhaps it needs to let go of the reins of space exploration and become more of a regulations bureau, like the FDA or FAA, making sure all “space programs” are legit, and no technology secrets are being slipped to foreign powers.

The continuation of NASA and the exploration of space are important goals and should be national goals. Mr. Wilson contests that programs, such as medical research, are better uses of federal money, but what if the cure for cancer lies somewhere out in space?

All this to say, I still find it highly suspect that President Bush is suddenly interested in space exploration during an election year.



Kenneth the Menneth from The Institute for the Advancement of Robots in Space (IFARIS) writes:
January 16, 2004
Critics of Bush's proposal, including Mr. Wilson, seem to me to be blowing the spending aspect out of proportion. NASA's budget under the proposal would remain at about 1% of the federal budget. Pretty miniscule, relatively speaking. It would add $1 Billion over the next five years to NASA's budget and shift another $11 Billion from other parts of NASA's budget to the Mars plan. This is hardly alarming.

But Mr. Wilson would do away with NASA altogether and throw that drop of money into the bucket for cancer and AIDS research, solving world hunger, and Other Worthy Causes. As others have suggested, to scrap NASA would be foolhardy from both a military and scientific standpoint (protecting ourselves from incoming asteroids or finding options for the human race to survive in the event life on Earth becomes impossible). While I believe there is much to gain scientifically from space exploration, the financial risks are too great at this point to expect the private sector to invest in it beyond the purchase of satellites. Maybe in 40 years, NASA will have advanced space technology far enough for the private sector to step in and drive further advancement.

To abandon the government-sponsored space effort now would set back the human race. We will always have Earth-bound problems to spend money on, but we must always pursue the mysteries of space because the knowledge gained can have a profound, unimagined impact on our future.

James Leroy Wilson writes:
January 18, 2004
If ET is correct and space continues to be a major security concern for the United States - this time because of China, the President must speak plainly about this and not talk about “listing our national spirit” and other quasi-religious gobbledygook. If our politicians do not speak the truth on policy matters, then we might as well cancel the Constitution: what’s the point of an election is the people are being lied to instead of informed?

I agree with S.E. Shepherd that privatization is unlikely, but to say that it won’t work because the government wouldn’t allow it misses my meaning: the government ought to allow it. It’s easy to say that that’s unlikely or isn’t going to happen soon, but if it is the right thing to do, someone must say it.

My position must be seen from an overall “pro-freedom” or libertarian position. Yes, there have been scientific breakthroughs from NASA - yet also colossal waste of time and money. What have all those science experiments on the shuttles done for anybody? Moreover, America’s best defense is not based on the size and power of its military, but pursuing policies of free trade and friendly relations with all nations. If no one has an interest in attacking us, we won’t be attacked. Who would then care how much money other countries were wasting on defense?

Yes, we don’t know what might be out there in space that might be profitable for human use. But as a matter of justice, I don’t see why we should mug the American people, even if its just forty to eighty bucks on average per year, to find out. Those who want to find out what’s out there, should be free to do so.

I stress that I do not want to spend that money on Worthy Causes like cancer research: I wrote that if I were a socialist, in a world of limited resources I’d rather spend it on that. My error, of course, is in thinking that socialists actually know that resources are limited. What I want is to return as much money to the taxpayer and cut spending accordingly.

To say that “only government” can do this or that, like flying to Mars, is to say that some people want to trample on the open market and force it to evolve in ways that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Only an open market can, through prices, tell us what the people really want and need. If we go to space on the backs of the taxpayer, even if the amount seems small, then the technology would have expanded too rapidly and unnaturally - by robbing the taxpayer. And then a few corporate elites with pull can exploit whatever benefits there are in space, and squeeze smaller competitors out.

If there is no market demand for something, it means the thing isn’t wanted or needed. Our society can and will go to Mars when it is ready: when it wants to. And a far more just way to do that is to cut taxes, spending, and regulations massively, leaving private businesses with more money for research and development to provide those things they anticipate the people would buy. People who want to invest in space instead of, say, cancer research would have the means to do so. More power to them.

I’m not saying that there haven’t been any benefits from government-invested science projects, but that we can’t say that other benefits, or even greater benefits, wouldn’t have been achieved if the people were allowed to spend their own money as they pleased. Innovation comes best in free markets.

Mike Thomson from Merritt Island, Florida writes:
January 18, 2004
If James Wilson would read a little more science and a little less politics, he would know the benefit of those science projects on the shuttle missions...

James Leroy Wilson writes:
January 18, 2004
I would be glad to see an article of Mr. Thomson's knowledge of the magnificent contributions of the space sphuttle experiments, or at least links to articles where I could find any meaningful contribution of the shuttle programs. Or even how our government inevitably leads to great leaps forward in science and technology, whereas free markets would keep us in the Stone Age.



Michael H. Thomson from Merritt Island, Florida writes:
January 19, 2004
Wow!

Okay, I'll tell a story:

There was this seafarer named Christopher Columbus who lived in a time when the learned, the Church, and the free marketeers of the day, thought the world was flat.

Being a superb seafarer since childhood, Chris in his role as an observer, began to draw some conclusions about the world is flat prevailing view. His experience from observing the curvature of the earth, the movement of the stars, etc., convinced Chris that the flat-earthers were totally wrong - the world in his view HAD to be round.

In the 1480's there was no one of wealth who (1) Was going to take the time to listen to this lunatic and (2) Invest their capital in a venture that would result in Chris and crew - and more importantly their capital expenditure - the boats - following off the edge of the earth.

Dauntless, Chris turns to the government, actually -two governments.

The first, Portugal, lets Chris know plain and simple that they are perfectly satisfied by the wealth being brought into their coffers by merchants who ply the trade routes to the east. Sorry no cigar for you, Chris baby...

The second, Spain, listens a little more attentively, but complains that they don't have the money for an expedition, but they put Chris on a retainer - so he doesn't go back to Portugal.

Finally after winning a war that puts more money in the treasury, in 1492, Spain outfits Columbus's ships...The rest is history.

Three hundred and eleven years later a similar risky adventure into the unknown was commissioned and sponsored by the U.S. Government led by President Thomas Jefferson.

Where were the free market forces in both of these expeditions?

I make no claim to having a great wealth of knowledge about the benefit of space shuttle experiments or space exploration. However, in every area Man has explored or researched benefit has come. Many times dramatic benefits. It is no different with space...

As to those links, Space Shuttle Experiments placed in Google will take you to many - the one below should get you started:

Significant Findings from Space Shuttle Experiments to be presented at conference 1997

http://www.qadas.com/qadas/nasa/nasa-hm/0754.html

To be fair and balanced: There is a free marketeer who is making some dramatic progress in rocketry. His name is Elon Musk, a computer billionaire from California. The link below is to a recent press release:

http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=13382

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