TO BOLDLY GO. . .
The rather unfortunately named Homer Hickam subtitles his WSJ op-ed supporting the Mars trip “Space exploration is cool, and deficit moaners are nerds.” Heh.
The argument is rather amusing.
All I’ve got to say is please, for pity’s sake, stop worrying about NASA stealing money from your favorite federal program and adding to the deficit. Out of a $2 trillion-plus budget in 2004, human resources programs (Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Social Security, etc.) will get an astounding 34%! In contrast, NASA has the smallest budget of all the major agencies in the federal government. In fact, its budget has represented less than 1% of the total budget each year since 1977 and it will probably never get more than a fraction above that, even with this new plan.
Since when is NASA a “major agency”? And 1% of two trillion dollars is, as they say in these parts, real money.
The crux of the argument, as always, is a combination of space as a modern-day Works Progress Administration or, Hey, the Apollo program gave us Tang!
Before they complain about it, I wish the moaners would take the time to find out a few things about NASA’s measly 1%. It has added billions of dollars back to our economy. It’s about the only program in the federal budget that has a track record of doing that. When NASA does cutting-edge work, new products are devised and people, Americans, are put to work producing them. To keep our economy steaming and pay our bills, we have to stay ahead in product innovation. That means inventing and manufacturing new products. One proven way to do that is to get the space program going with some real work.
Well, let’s see. It takes 1% of two trillion, or roughly $200 billion, out of the economy and puts “billions” back in. How many billions?
It seems to me that a more fruitful argument is this one:
Let’s be clear. Space is a nasty and cruel place for human beings. The analogy that going into space is like Columbus sailing off to discover the New World followed by hordes of immigrants is ludicrous. The moon isn’t the Bahamas and Mars isn’t New England. Antarctica is the better analogy. The world has been mucking around down there for over a century, but I don’t see too many towns sprouting up on the ice. Yet what’s happening there is productive. The scientists and engineers who have journeyed to that faraway place are there to try to figure out some things, such as how the Earth works.
How the Earth works is pretty important, especially if we want to keep living on it. And right there is the key to clear thinking about human beings in space. There are a lot of people, just like those men and women down at the South Pole, who need to go to the moon and maybe beyond to help figure out how the Earth and the universe works, to discover the answers to some fundamental questions of chemistry, physics, biology, medicine and, yes, even philosophy that might be answered there and only there. And here’s a prediction. Once we get people on the moon, more than a few of them will figure out how to turn a buck, lots of bucks. There’s no downside that I can see to the entire enterprise. I think even my dad would agree.
Well, there’s plenty of downside in opportunity costs and risk to the participants. The question is whether the scientific benefit outweighs those.