The White House has announced plans to host a conference in Florida on April 15 during which President Obama will unveil his vision for the U.S. space program. If recent moves by the administration are any indication, this new vision will significantly curtail public funding for space activity. The president is working hard to spin the upcoming change as a transition rather than a cut, and perhaps for good reason: He is unlikely to find a receptive audience in Florida, long a recipient of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s largess.
But while the swing-state politics of the Sunshine State may compel Obama to tread carefully, we as the general public should recognize this new policy for what it is: a dramatic reduction in human space exploration. We should also support Obama for his fiscal discipline in cutting what has been a horrendous waste of our society’s resources.
With apologies to Dwight Eisenhower, the cost of one modern space shuttle is this: one and a half million lives lost for wont of anti-malarial bed nets. It is electricity to power a U.S. city of two million people for a year. It is nine-hundred billion gallons of fresh drinking water produced by desalination. We pay for a single shuttle launch with fifty million bushels of wheat. We house a handful of men in space with a year’s worth of housing for more than ten million U.S. citizens. NASA is not just spending money. It is spending the sweat of our laborers, the genius of our scientists, the hopes of our children.
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the clouds of this space-industrial complex, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
Proponents claim that on its route to the stars, NASA has completed research that has benefited the rest of mankind. It is true, NASA research has led to many discoveries: Besides its many advances in satellites and computing, NASA can also claim credit for a host of more mundane things — quartz timing crystals, bar-code scanners, smoke detectors, cordless screwdrivers, and velcro. But let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that all of NASA’s budget can be recompensed by the occasional spin-offs from its R&D program. Let us not buy into the delusion that all of the low-hanging fruit that NASA has picked over the years would have gone undiscovered forever, or that we would never have achieved satellites without luxuries such as the Apollo missions. Not only is it the case that research is a small component of NASA’s activities, but it should also be self-evident that had NASA’s budget been applied directly to the betterment of humanity, the direct gains of that spending would have outweighed the tangential gains from the occasional cross-utilization of space technology here on earth.
Think about it this way: MIT, from a mixture of tuition, government funding, and endowment payouts, spends $2.5 billion to keep itself running. NASA costs more than $17 billion. Over the past four decades, instead of NASA, we could have had at least six additional MIT’s. Consider all of the research that our single MIT has produced during that period, all of the students taught and leadership provided. For all the gains that NASA has made, its opportunity costs are far greater.
Something does not need to be a 100 percent complete and total waste in order to call it wasteful. Even the most hard-hearted of critics must admit that the organization has chalked up many victories in the fight to improve the world. But humanity deserves more than just the scraps of NASA’s occasional research. Humanity deserves better than the continuation of an ill-advised space race with a geopolitical enemy that disappeared nearly two decades ago. Humanity deserves our full and undivided attention — no more playing golf on the moon or entertaining fanciful notions of putting men on Mars. Feeding and clothing people might not be as sexy as space exploration, but in the broader picture it is a just and nobler goal.
Mr. Levinger argues that NASA is small potatoes, a mere drop in the bucket compared to, say, spending on the military. But just because NASA is a small waste, or a waste among many, does not mean it isn’t waste, or that it should be ignored.
Nothing should be given a free pass. For every dollar spent, we should consider the human cost. That sounds melodramatic, but it is hard not to sound melodramatic when a billion people live on less than a dollar per day. When you have to make choices between food, water, and shelter, considering the human cost of a dollar isn’t melodramatic — it’s routine. Mr. Levinger may not see a direct connection between our society spending resources in one area, and going without in another, but to those who understand the functioning of the free market, the connection is clear. An engineer who works for NASA developing zero-g fluid pumps is not an engineer developing water pumps for rural Africa. A tax dollar taken to purchase a bolt is a dollar not given through charity to buy food for a hungry child. The slightest of upticks in the price of aluminum for a shuttle wing shifts millions of dollars of investment across the world. The fungibility is not perfect, and Mr. Levinger is right to point this out. But a NASA dollar does not come directly out of the world’s budget for candy and cosmetics either.
The more poetic among us say that NASA has given millions hope, that it is a symbol of the ingenuity and ambition of the human race. Mr. Levinger himself thinks of it as “heroic.” I disagree. Why should it be the case that investing in space travel is more inspiring than spending that money on the poorest of our fellow man? Doesn’t such an obsession with space imply not that we are an ambitious race, but instead that we doubt the goodness of human nature? Doesn’t it suggest that we are so convinced of our inevitable self-destruction that we would rather fling ourselves into the hostile unknown than risk submitting ourselves to the cruelties of our fellow man?
Where others see an adventurer’s spirit, I see existential worry and cowardly desperation. Every thruster that is made, every spaceship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. Rather than gambling on the stars, why not inspire our children by investing in ourselves, by committing to the belief that human life on Earth is sustainable, by devoting new resources to overcome the problems that we face?
The cold war is over. The political one-upmanship that NASA was founded upon is a thing of the past. It is time to recognize that mankind has higher priorities than planting flags on planets.