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NASA, phone home July 22, 2006

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Government Spending.
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NASA is basically a PR stunt that has gotten terribly out of hand.  I mean, we made it to the moon, we got all those great dual-use / spin-off technologies like Tang beverages and Tempurpedic foam.  Why is the United States still spending money trying to safely send men into orbit?

My guess: There’s a bunch of bureaucrats sustaining their careers with press conferences featuring the ethnically and gender-diverse crew of each shuttle mission.  All those wide-eyed schoolchildren with big dreams seem to keep the funding spigot wide open, and keep the appropriators from asking if this is the best use for our country’s limited basic research dollars.

Plenty of others have noted how absurd it is to be continuing manned spaceflight for any of our present purposes — even people like Chris Gibbons who hope for manned space exploration to resume in 5-10 years.  He points out:

The shuttle departures are more of a stunt than a necessity. The science takes second place to the astronauts, and a large part of the budget must go to human safety needs. Everything is overdesigned and expensive. The Mars landers proved that space exploration can be done more efficiently without humans along, and the landers have sent back a large amount of scientific data. If the takeoff should fail in some way, the only things lost are gadgets, which can be replaced.

Meanwhile, the only project that expressly requires manned spaceflight is the International Space Station — another out-of-control project that should have been shut down or mothballed years ago.  From http://astronautix.com/Mambo/:

Aviation Leak has revealed the latest plans for the completion of the ISS so that it can be abandoned. One can almost scream in frustration.

The ISS/Station Alpha/Fred/Freedom/Space Base was initially supposed to be part of a space infrastructure. This would consist of a reusable earth-to-orbit shuttle, reusable conventional and nuclear shuttles between earth orbit and the moon and Mars, and a space station for maintenance, refuelling, and assembly of those shuttles. The shuttle was the only bit funded, and then only partially reusable.

After shuttle development was completed NASA secured funding for a space station. But without the reusable interplanetary shuttles, it could really have no purpose. So NASA, NASDA, and ESA, went back to the old canard of justifying the station as being necessary to develop all of those awesome zero-G technologies that would supposedly revolutionise life on earth (the ones Richard Feynman pointedly noted he hadn’t heard of during the Challenger investigation). Forty years of spending on those awesome technologies have came to zilch, nada, nichevo, nichts, zero, nothing. But bureaucracies must march on like robots blindly following their assigned tasks.

As I have argued before, there is a thriving commerical space-launch market.  Other countries also have the capacity to launch men into space.  I.e., there is nothing NASA is doing now that can’t be done by others.  And given the costs involved in manned spaceflight at present, there is no way to justify continuing these programs with American tax dollars.

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