Commentary

Don’t Lavish Funds on NASA

By Michael Gough
July 16, 1997

These heady Sojourner days are a time to examine NASA, not a time to lavish funds on it. To begin, the examination needs to separate NASA’s manned and unmanned programs. The manned vehicles are expensive and deliver few scientific or commercial payoffs. Cheap by comparison, the unmanned vehicles continue exploring the universe, the business that has excited us since NASA’s beginnings. But, successful or unsuccessful, NASA’s programs have crowded out commercial and nonprofit explorers. Should NASA funding end, private sources would take up the slack for worthwhile ventures into space.

After NASA sold the nation on the space shuttle as an inexpensive, reusable lifter, the cost of hefting a pound of payload into space, accepting NASA’s accounting, soared from $3,800 in the 1960s Apollo program to $6,000 (in constant dollars). When Alex Rowland of Duke University included the development and capital costs of the shuttle, the cost rocketed to $35,000 per pound. NASA’s costs went up when the cost of just about everything else—megabytes of computer memory, airline tickets, shipping a barrel of oil—were falling in real dollars. The difference between NASA’s rising costs and the falling costs elsewhere is that computer makers, airlines, and oil shippers are in competitive markets.

Expensive as it is, the shuttle is a bust scientifically and commercially. Scientifically, can anything be gained from yet another study of the effects of weightlessness? Commercially, a few experiments killed the idea that weightless production is worth its cost.

Faced with the shuttle’s uselessness, NASA proclaimed it to be essential for building the space station. In so doing, NASA attempts to salvage what had been sold as an elegant exploration vehicle into a truck for carrying materials to a construction site.

But the station, too, is a white elephant. Originally to cost $8 billion, then $40 billion, a pared-down Station was planned for $30 billion in 1993. The General Accounting Office calculates that planning, building, launching and operating the station for 10 years will cost $94 billion. In contrast, a decade ago, Space Industries of Houston proposed to build a mini-station for less than $1 billion. Such private offers should not be brushed aside in deference to NASA plans and construction.

What are the benefits of the station? Precious few. Martin Marietta Corporation’s CEO Norman Augustine, who chaired a Presidential Advisory Commission in 1991, said that much of the research planned for the station can be conducted on Earth or by unmanned robots. Underlining that evaluation, no firm has signed on to rent space in the station.

The unmanned missions have given us Viking’s pictures from Mars 21 years ago, the beauty of Voyager’s and Galileo’s photographs of the outer planets and their satellites, and now more information from Mars. It’s exiting and wonderful and scientifically rich, and it’s cheap. Pathfinder flew Sojourner to Mars and Sojourner is doing her job for less than the $350 million price tag of a single shuttle flight.

Even so, it’s not appropriate to spend taxpayers’ dollars on civilian science projects, no matter how exciting. In fact, the Constitution was intended to prevent Congress from spending money on anything other than the few necessary functions of the federal government specified in that document.

The end of federal funding would not mean the end of space exploration. As detailed in Terence Kealey’s book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (St. Martin’s Press, 1996), the private sector constantly demands new knowledge and puts up the money to obtain it. For instance, the four largest optical telescopes in the country were built largely with private funds.

If scientists at Harvard, MIT, and Stanford decided that knowledge of Mars chemistry was important enough, they could seek funds from private, non-profit or for-profit organizations to build the machines, and obtain information for less than NASA pays for it now.

It’s pie in the sky to think that Congress will scrap NASA (or any other agency that spreads technical and manufacturing jobs across the county). Maybe it’s not impossible that Congress will make different decisions about the manned and unmanned efforts at NASA.

Considering the huge costs, miniscule payoffs, and risks to astronauts in the manned program, the appropriate decision about the shuttle and the station is clear. Congress should cut off their funding and sell the shuttle fleet and the station, or whatever part of it has been built, to private purchasers who will, if nothing else, operate them in a fashion to recover their costs.

Loosed from the terrible overhead of the manned program, NASA could concentrate on unmanned vehicles and get on with scientific, exploratory missions that will increase our knowledge of the universe. The spare, stripped-down agency should be instructed to contract with private parties for hardware and data whenever they are available. In particular, NASA should not crowd out some private ventures in space, and it should stop building and operating launch vehicles. Commercial firms provide those services, and competition among them for NASA’s business would bring costs down. A market for space exploration tools and information would encourage other firms to venture into space and everyone would benefit.

Michael Gough is director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute.