NASA, the Aerospace Welfare Queen

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May 1, 2008

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a textbook example of how to quash free scientific inquiry. It also is a lesson in transforming potentially useful citizens into high-speed drains on the U.S. Treasury. Instead of perpetuating its gold-plated make-work projects and revering its state-sponsored 'official heroes,' we should recognize NASA for what it is -- a resuscitated Roman coliseum that stages useless spectacles that hypnotize taxpayers while bleeding them dry. Or is it just a vampire with a bad case of hemophilia? Take your pick. Populus optat panem et circenses.

The Race to Bankruptcy

Free-market businesses are ethically sound because they are funded voluntarily by willing customers. In contrast, NASA is a coercive shakedown. First, there is no market for what it sells. There are no eager buyers spending their own money on NASA's goods and services. Instead, NASA's annual budget of $16.8 billion (2007) is taken from taxpayers'under threat of violence by the government's hold-up men, the IRS. It is a case of naked exploitation that benefits politically connected companies and a government bureaucracy that exists for its own sake.

It should not surprise us that NASA is the Cold War stepchild of the military-industrial complex -- an offshoot of the arms race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Rather than the achievement of a free people, it is the collectivist response of the U.S. government to the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. At the same time, it is an example of chest-thumping worthy of juvenile delinquents playing a game of 'mine is better than yours.' Even President Kennedy's decision to go to the Moon was a public-relations stunt that mortgaged America 's future in exchange for the emotional 'high' of winning a technological spending spree.

In essence, the 'space race' is part of a nationalistic race toward bankruptcy. While the United States won the first lap of this race by reaching the Moon in 1969, the Soviet Union ultimately won the contest by bankrupting and dissolving itself in 1991. With its tiresome catalog of budget-busting boondoggles, the United States will finish a poor second. Nonetheless, with NASA's help, it will eventually bankrupt itself with the same certainty as a red giant in outer space. The only question is when.

The Original Sub-Prime Mortgage Scam

In contrast to desirable market-based companies, NASA's value to taxpayers compares poorly with even the casualties of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. After all, who wouldn't be happy to pay money to shut down NASA -- if only to prevent another round of orbiting money-pits from being launched into oblivion? For example, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were obscenely wasteful. Nearly all of the spacecraft used in these missions (everything but the manned capsules) ended up as waste at the end of each trip -- either burned up in the atmosphere, sunk beneath the waves, or floating as debris in space. Even the capsules were not re-used; instead, they are displayed at the tax-subsidized Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum , where they continue to drain taxpayers' wallets to this very day. Heck, too bad Nero and Caligula never had a chance to take lessons from astronauts John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin about how to ride on the backs of taxpayers. Even the obscenely wasteful food orgies and burning tenements of Rome might pale in comparison to the extra-stratospheric waste of nasty old NASA.

How long would even the most soft-headed parent continue to provide a son or daughter with a string of new automobiles if they were driven off a cliff each time they were taken out for a spin? In contrast to NASA, privately financed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan developed energy efficient aircraft and spacecraft. In June 2004, his SpaceShipOne was the first privately built craft to reach space. In so doing, he reused more than 80% of the vehicle hardware and did not cost taxpayers a dime. Along with his investors, he plans to commercialize space flight. Even more important, he eliminated coercion and the entitlement mentality of government programs from the concept of space exploration.

Lost in Space

NASA's space missions burn tax dollars faster than the IRS can pluck them from our wallets. But as quickly as our dollars disappear, so do the spacecraft. Remember the Mars Observer? It was lost in 1993. And this was followed by the Mars Climate Orbiter (1999) and the Mars Polar Lander (1999). And what about the two Deep Space probes also lost in 1999 or the infrared telescope lost in that year as well? Just as sobering, the Hubble telescope yields its own brand of budget madness. After an original total cost estimate of $400 million, the construction bill alone came to $2.5 billion. The cumulative cost ranges between $4.5 and $6 billion. Similarly, Time reported (Feb. 2003) that the space station was originally slated to cost $14 billion, but the tally reached $35 billion back in 2003.

The space station, however, was just an appetizer for the Space Shuttle program. For that program, NASA initially hoodwinked us with a low-ball figure of $5.5 million per launch. Later NASA admitted a cost of $450 million per launch and $1.7 billion for the cost of the shuttle Endeavor alone (only one of the vehicles used). The true cost is much higher. Roger Pielke, Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, claims that the total cost of the program will reach $173 billion by 2010 -- a cost per flight of $1.3 billion. Since it will cost taxpayers more than 200 times the original estimate, the Space Shuttle program makes Operation Iraqi Freedom look like a significant -- if bloodier -- bargain. After all, unless you factor in the carnage and future blowback terrorism caused by the war in Iraq , it has cost only 45 times as much as the original 'cakewalk' estimates of The Great Decider.

But Roger Pielke's estimate for the Space Shuttle program may be too pessimistic. He assumed that NASA will continue to find human guinea pigs reckless enough to board the shuttles. After all, they fall apart so regularly that newspaper headline writers are forever seeking new ways to say 'Astronauts to Repair Shuttle.' With each foray, there is the implicit threat that debris from a disintegrating craft will rain down upon Earth-bound civilians. When will the Department of Homeland Security be asked to protect us from NASA?

'And All I Got Was This Dumb T-Shirt

In contrast to privately funded scientific efforts such as Edison's (electricity), Bayer's (aspirin), or Gutenberg's (printing), has NASA discovered anything that justifies the fabulous expense? According to Wesley Ward, chief space geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (Feb. 2003): 'The international space station, like the shuttle, is an instrument in search of a purpose . . . . (We) are doing a variety of piddley experiments with little larger application to anything.' NASA Chief Administrator Michael Griffin concurs. He recently suggested that the decision to develop the space shuttle and International Space Station was a mistake: 'It is now commonly accepted that (it) was not the right path. We are now trying to change the path while doing as little damage as we can.' He also added that 'the shuttle is fundamentally flawed.' James Van Allen, considered the father of nuclear physics in space (remember the Van Allen radiation belts?), has been a long-term critic of the space shuttle. To the Associated Press, he described the program as '. . . too expensive and dangerous . . . It's a vastly difficult effort with almost no significant purpose.'

Taxpayers also should consider this: how were they possibly being served when astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery carried a souvenir T-shirt into space as a favor for the school children of Golden Hill Elementary School in Haverhill, Massachusetts (Feb. 2007)? At a cost of $1.3 billion per shuttle launch, surely that T-shirt was the most overpriced in the history of informal apparel. The political payload on shuttle trips has included Luke Skywalker's light saber, American flags, a teddy bear, and other cheesy memorabilia -- sometimes counted by the dozen! Instead of being ashamed, NASA is proud of this imperial waste. It even hosts a web page called Items Taken into Space. Just think: average citizens will go to jail for refusing to subsidize this nonsense. As examples of in-your-face waste and insensitivity, these outrages are worthy of Marie Antoinette before she lost her head in the French Revolution. Why are no heads rolling at NASA?

Of course, NASA's supporters claim that we enjoy countless benefits from the space program. Some are mythical, and most have no application beyond outer space; All of them, however, fail to answer the following questions: (1) at what cost? and (2) instead of what? In other words, they do not tell us what Americans could have achieved with this great pile of cash if NASA had not incinerated it without leaving as much as a toasted marshmallow. The problem is that NASA has failed to meet the only test that matters among people who do not use loaded guns to enforce a decision: the market test. Only when buyers and sellers engage in peaceful, voluntary exchange can products and services be judged as successes or failures. Only then are they subject to a true cost-benefit analysis instead of the arbitrary judgment of self-interested bureaucrats, which is the trademark of all socialist ventures such as NASA's.

Self-Justification, Anyone?

Oddly enough, NASA tacitly admits there is no good reason to flush away billions of dollars on its projects. For example, a visit to NASA's Moon, Mars & Beyond web page includes the link Why the Moon? There we are told why NASA will be allowed to squander untold billions on an Apollo re-run -- a return to the Moon by 2020. Let's take a closer look:

'Over the past year, NASA posed this question not just to 100 people, but to more than 1,000 from around the world . . . . Starting with just their responses, NASA worked with 13 of the world's space agencies to develop a Global Exploration Strategy. The strategy explains why the global community believes we should explore space, how space exploration can benefit life on Earth, and how the Moon can play a critical role in our exploration of the solar system.'

Those of us who sell products to real customers know why we do it before we ask for cold, hard cash. NASA does not work this way. First they take our money; then they ask why. Just as scary, however, are NASA's answers:

  • ' Extend human settlement to the Moon. Most of us believe that terrestrial real estate is expensive enough without having to commute nearly 240,000 miles to find a quiet half acre next to a total vacuum in a bad neighborhood with toasty daytime temperatures of 212 'F and frosty evenings of -233 'F.
  • ' Obtain scientific knowledge. Privately funded scientists do this better without as much waste. Imagine how cost-effective and user-friendly personal computers would be if NASA had manufactured them.
  • ' Prepare for future space trips. This circular argument is simply embarrassing. It's like saying, 'Let's have dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town so that we can learn how to dine at another expensive restaurant in the future!' Self-justification anyone?
  • ' Develop shared, peaceful global partnerships. Doesn't worldwide free trade accomplish this goal even better and at no cost to the taxpayer? Besides, forcing taxpayers to cough up the cash isn't very peaceful or partner-like.
  • ' Provide economic expansion. NASA actually reduces economic expansion by bleeding funds from peaceful, profitable projects that people engage in willingly and diverting them to politically determined pork-barrel spending sprees at the point of a gun.
  • ' Promotes public engagement. For NASA, engagement means disseminating propaganda for the special interests that benefit from its programs. Most of us would rather not pay for this excruciating pleasure.
  • As you can see, NASA's justifications are self-serving, evasive, or just plain silly. Maybe that's why Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) criticized plans to move forward with President Decider's 'Vision for Space Exploration,' which includes NASA's Moon re-run and the mission to Mars. Perhaps CAGW was thinking of the $34 million in government property that NASA has simply 'lost' since 1997. Meanwhile, NASA's Michael Griffin referred to the new Moon mission as 'Apollo on steroids.' Was he referring to the new mission or to the bulked-up pork-barrel spending?

NASA's Role in Preemptive War and Arms Escalation

NASA represents something more ominous than mere waste on a galactic scale. Although its space technologies were developed for overtly peaceful and scientific purposes, government programs typically yield results that are contrary to their stated purpose. In this case, NASA has become a stalking horse for the Department of Defense and for the Department of Homeland Security's surveillance technologies (CBS News, August 15, 2007 ). Space technologies, for example, are finding their way into Pentagon projects at an alarming rate, and these new applications should lead us to think twice about NASA's standing as a civilian scientific program. Not surprisingly, the militarization of space is being conducted by the same companies that are contractors for NASA: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and others.

In his book, Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson described how space technologies are being used in offensive war-making. In that role, they generate the same kind of international resentment that led to the retaliatory attacks of September 11. Johnson pointed out, for example, that these systems were employed in the bombardment of Serbia in 1999 and again in the devastation of Afghanistan in 2002. Keep in mind that in Afghanistan , U.S. forces slaughtered more civilians than were killed in the World Trade Center .

Johnson also quoted high military officials as they openly declared the role of space-based weapons in wars of choice. For example, Jeff Harris, former director of the National Reconnaissance Office (now executive of Lockheed's Space Systems Company), told the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in 2002: 'The U.S. must now act regularly in a preemptive and proactive way around the globe, using space-based resources for local skirmishes . . . .' Similarly: '. . . Undersecretary Teets derided any talk of cooperation with NATO or the United Nations or other forms of 'burden sharing' or 'multilateralism.' The United States , he said, should be proud of its unilateral capabilities and should exploit 'our space supremacy, our space dominance, to achieve warfighting success.''

Chalmers Johnson also explained that military dependence on 'killer satellites' and other space-based weapons systems is fueling additional waves of militarism and imperialism in an out-of-control spiral that will eventually bankrupt our nation. Because these systems rely exclusively on satellite-based global positioning systems (GPS) and other forms of space-based communication, they have led to shrill demands for dominance of the Earth's entire stratosphere so that the technologies themselves will not be threatened by foes. In essence, the vulnerabilities of these technologies are generating their own rationale to dominate more and more of the planet. Where will it end?

Johnson also shows that these systems' inborn tendencies to malfunction are likely to trigger an unnecessary military conflict, a scenario that the president has attempted to cover up:

'. . . the Bush administration has done everything in its power to classify and so hide official information on the high probability that the system will malfunction. For example, the Pentagon suppressed a report written in August 2000 by Philip E. Coyle, its own director of operational testing and evaluation, despite six different congressional requests for it. Among other things, Coyle documented how the command and control system for BMD (ballistic missile defense) is easily confused and has in the past caused a simulated launch of multiple interceptors against missiles that did not exist. As Representative John Tierney (D-Massachusetts) commented, 'One immediate danger in these types of situations is that adversaries may interpret these (mistaken) launches as a hostile first strike and respond accordingly.' Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has said that he wants a ballistic missile defense even if it has not been thoroughly tested and is admittedly not able to perform to specifications.'

For those who are not swayed by the possibility of human devastation caused by malfunctioning space-based defense systems, perhaps the loss of satellite communications ( GPS , satellite TV, and phone services) will do the trick. In Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, Chalmers Johnson informed us that the Air Force currently tracks 13,400 man-made objects in space -- most of it consisting of space debris traveling at 17,500 miles per hour. An additional 100,000 smaller pieces of junk cannot be tracked, amounting to approximately 4 million pounds of junk. This material poses a threat to civilian satellites, and the use of space for anti-satellite weaponry would be disastrous because it would vastly multiply the quantity of dangerous debris. According to Jel Primack, professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, 'Weaponization of space would make the debris problem much worse, and even one war in space could encase the entire planet in a shell of whizzing debris that would thereafter make space near the Earth highly hazardous for peaceful as well as military purposes . . . .'

To highlight the severity of this threat, Nemesis contains the following warning from the first woman in space:

'Astronaut Sally Ride . . . has been adamant that the use of anti-satellite weapons would be 'disastrous' because of the debris they would be likely to create. On her inaugural mission in June 1983, an incident fixed her opinion on this subject: 'About halfway through the flight there was a small pit in the window of the space shuttle and we didn't know what it was. An awful lot of analysis was done while we were in orbit to make sure that the strength of the window would sustain reentry. It did. We were all fine. But the analysis afterward showed that our window had been hit by an orbiting fleck of paint, and the relative velocities were enough that the paint actually made a small but visible gouge in the window. Well a fleck of paint is not the same as a small piece of metal traveling at the same speed. So, as soon as you start increasing the amount of junk in a low Earth orbit, you have an unintended by-product that starts putting some of your own quite valuable satellites at possible risk.''

Abolish NASA Now

The products and services of NASA are provided at high cost and in an irresponsible fashion (remember the T-shirts and disintegrating space shuttles?). Even worse, the military applications are endangering American lives and security because of their incorporation into the U.S. government's runaway love affair with military adventurism. Next time those around you are swept up in the excitement of NASA's propaganda, remember the great gulf that separates NASA from private-sector retailers, dining establishments, and high-tech companies: They would never force you to patronize them by pointing a loaded gun at your head. Consequently, it is important for Americans to put a stake in NASA's heart.

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Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture
Columns on STR: 33

Lawrence Ludlow is a freelance writer living in San Diego.