The NASA Rant

I posted this at the other site. It’s a rant I wrote some time ago about NASA. Enjoy. For some reason, I’m clearing out a lot of bloggy backlog this week.

Arguments over NASA are fertile field for bullshit. Proponents for example, will often point out that NASA doesn’t cost very much. This is, by far, the worst argument anyone could possibly make. When a program’s first argument for existence is that it doesn’t cost very much, that’s a program that needs to be slashed.

It’s also a bogus argument. $18 billion or so is a lot of money, no matter how often you compare it to the cost of the Iraq War. And even it weren’t a lot of money, every dime is extracted from the taxpayer by force. Eighteen cents is too much to spend if a program is worthless.

Critics, on the other hand, usually say we should send that money solving problems here on Earth. However, there is little evidence that the problems of poverty, education and crime result from a lack of government spending. And by any historical standard, we have no problems worth mentioning. We have no plagues, we have tons of food, the average citizen lives into their 70’s and dies of, effectively, old age. What more do you want?

But the fundamental argument about NASA is closely related to why I, a small government libertarian, can be so supportive of an ambitious space program. After all, isn’t that big government in action?

My reasoning is very simple and it comes from Adam Smith himself. In Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that government should engage in projects which benefit the entire nation but are not narrow enough to profit to an individual. Roads would be a primary example. But I think space exploration falls into that category too, for one simply reason: survival of the species.

As long as humanity is confined to one planet, we are vulnerable. An asteroid strike, a solar flare, a supervolcano … and it’s all over. Everything we have achieved — from Shakespeare to Beethoven — is gone. The only chance we have for our civilization and our species to survive long term (i.e., for millions of years) is to not put all our eggs in one basket and get some of our population out of here.

To me, there is nothing more important than the guaranteed survival of our species. And that’s why Bolden’s comments have so distressed me, even if they were a “flatter the foreigners” line of bullshit. NASA’s mission is saving the species, not making Islamic countries feel better about themselves. NASA’s mission, as Ed Morrissey points out, inspires children all its own. NASA’s mission, as we’ve seen, can inspire other nations to join up and share the burden.

The survival of our species is the ultimate goal; everything is gravy. Now the gravy is wonderful in and of itself. We could get cheap energy from the moon. We could get cheap minerals from asteroids. The technology needed to reach the planets and the stars will have wonderful secondary benefits. And the achievements of NASA — Apollo in particular — are a monument I would put up against any in history. Putting Neil Armstrong on the moon was an accomplishment greater than the Great Wall, The Pyramids and the Colossus all put together (and de Tocqueville would argue that this was reason enough to fund it). The gravy from NASA’s mission is, in fact, so abundant that it’s easy to miss the meat.

But that’s the point of having a President and a NASA Administrator who keep their eyes on the goal.

Now saving the species is not going to happen overnight. It may not even happen this millennium. A lot of breakthroughs have to be made to get there. And that argument — we first need to make space travel safer, cheaper and better — has been made by many NASA critics, notably Gregg Easterbrook. But space travel is not going to get cheaper or easier on its own. We’re not going to wake up one day and find a monolith on the White House lawn containing the secrets of warp drive. Pushing the boundaries is the only way to make the impossible possible. In 1961, when NASA could barely orbit a monkey, John Kennedy stated the goal of landing on the moon. Innumerable breakthroughs had to be made; but we made them. Why are we giving up on the impossible? What ever happened to “yes we can”?

Post Scripts: First, I should disclose that I am paid out of a NASA contract. So I can’t claim 100% objectivity (although I felt the same way when I was effectively unemployed). Second, as I was drafting this, I saw that Stephen Bainbridge made a similar argument on his blog today, only more succinctly. I think the spirit of Thomas Jefferson must have sent out a brainwave that struck graduates of his University.