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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/5992/nasa-nonsense/

NASA Nonsense

December 8, 2006 by

Gregg Easterbrook has an excellent piece in Slate tearing apart NASA’s much-heralded plans to put a base on the moon. I especially like that he ridicules the government’s claim that establishing a moon presence will help us create “heritage sites” — i.e., nature preserves of nothing but lunar dust that no one would disturb anyway! Walter Block and I tackle exactly that issue (“space environmentalism”) in a forthcoming law review article.

How silly the entire space program is; or that some who generally advocate capitalism, such as Ayn Rand, would consider such foolishness in any way laudable or worthwhile. Leonard Read, however, saw right through it, noting in his book Anything That’s Peaceful that NASA employees have an “unnatural specialization.”

{ 28 comments }

John McVey December 9, 2006 at 1:29 am

IIRC, Rand knew very well that the government had no business being involved in space exploration. Her point at the time on the matter was that if taxes were to be stolen and spent by government outside of its proper roles then at least space exploration was partially a celebration of a technical achievement arising from unflinching use of reason, as opposed to spending the same sums on ‘social programs.’

Of course, nowadays NASA is pretty much a play-pen and make-work scheme for otherwise unemployable scientists, and has degenerated into a social program in disguise.

JJM

TokyoTom December 9, 2006 at 4:31 am

John, this this, I think you`re missing the big picture, which Easterbrook gets right:

“NASA is pretty much a play-pen and make-work scheme for otherwise unemployable scientists, and has degenerated into a social program in disguise.”

Rather, as Easterbrook says, “Transparently, the true goal of the moon base would be to keep budget lines and contracts flowing to the congressional districts and aerospace contractors wired in to current NASA spending.”

NASA has little pull and its scientists even less. This proposal, like our invasion of Iraq, is really a pork-barrel program for favored industries. Hundreds of billions won`t be burnt, but diverted from the private economy and from productive uses into the pockets of insiders for unproductive activities.

Why has Bush proposed this? Bragging rights as China, India, Japan and others are making similar proposals. And he gets to play at being visionary leader without ponying up anything. What`s the downside to him?

TokyoTom December 9, 2006 at 4:36 am

JHH:

I like the Easterbrook piece, but I`m curious what you think of this paragraph by him:

“rational budget priorities for the agency would include first and foremost an exhaustive study of the sun, as well as the Earth and Mars and Venus, the two other Earthlike planets in the solar system, with automated probes and satellites. Second, it borders on criminal that NASA is doing nothing to prepare for a deadly comet or asteroid strike. (The agency says it has already cataloged 835 “potentially hazardous” large space rocks.) Third, space telescopes should continue to be used to study the distant universe. Fourth, researchers should be working on a breakthrough in propulsion technology, which could make getting to the moon more affordable.”

Are there really any “public goods” relating to space, or should all of NASA simply be axed?

Mark Brabson December 9, 2006 at 8:27 am

I worked within the general umbrella of NASA for several years. I had the chance during that period to see up close and personal the fraud, waste and abuse in the Shuttle program and other programs. I will say emphatically that NASA should be completely terminated and that all access, use and research in space should be totally under the purview of the private sector. The U.S.’s share of the International Space Station should be transferred to the other partners.

David C December 9, 2006 at 9:29 am

Ah, but this has nothing to do with space exploration or the enviroment. It has to do with China’s entrance into space and the US trying to maintain strategic military dominance.

J. H. Huebert December 9, 2006 at 12:01 pm

TokyoTom: All of NASA should be cut; I do not agree with Easterbrook on that point. As for the asteroid protection Easterbrook is concerned about, I have addressed that here and also in a book review forthcoming in the next JLS issue.

Bill Ott, Asteroid Skeptic December 9, 2006 at 1:36 pm

The reason for a multi-billion dollar program is to protect us from a wayward asteroid? What a deal? It is almost as good of a buy as the money spent saving ZERO US Citizens from Bird Flu. You know when a government program is worthless when it saves all of humanity.

NASA is worthless. It has no reason to exist. It adds nothing. Give the billions back to tax payers or use the dough to pay off the huge deficits accumulated by this and previous presidents.

Ozzie December 9, 2006 at 5:40 pm

I agree with everything you said except your interpretation of the Philosophers attitude.

In the Virtue Of Selfishness she makes quite clear she was against this form of public spending.

In an essay in another book of hers she made that comparison between how people behaved at Woodstock versus how they behaved at the Moon-shot launch to discuss various philsophical and cultural matters. But this ought not be taken as an endorsement of the space program as a justified government spending program.

Still. Until we have anarcho-capitalist defense up and running some sort of space program under the defense rubrick looks justified. Since its a well-known rule of warfare that one wants to capture the high ground.

But its pretty damn hard to see how the moon comes into that!

A storage-place for back-up materiel?

And as a heritage-site?

More reason to believe that this environmentalism has gone completely off the planet.

GMB

Mark Brabson December 9, 2006 at 6:10 pm

Ozzie:

Even if there was a justified need for space defense, that can and has been handled by the Air Force, not NASA. NASA has not participated in defense for several years. Shutting down NASA would not affect defense in any way.

BTW, on a side note. As I write this blog entry, I am watching the “NASA” channel which is covering the shuttle launch. They are currently closing out the white room, about 90 minutes from scheduled launch. When they are not covering launches, they broadcast what amounts to government propaganda, bragging about how wonderful they are and why they need more funding. Basically a government agency spending money on a cable channel to lobby more money for themselves. How typically government this is.

Wild Pegasus December 9, 2006 at 6:17 pm

If defending against space warfare is the goal, a moon base seems a profoundly lousy way to go about setting up near-Earth defense.

- Josh

Peter December 9, 2006 at 6:37 pm

NASA delenda est

Ozzie December 9, 2006 at 10:46 pm

Right Mark.

Well I agree with all that. That was kind of my point.

Ryan December 10, 2006 at 9:19 am

NASA is a profound waste of money and should be abolished. You have to wonder how much progress in space exploration/tourism/colonization has been held back by this monopoly. Really, it’s 2006 and they are still flying a 30-year old hunk of junk!

TokyoTom December 11, 2006 at 7:48 am

JHH:

I appreciate that you have a consistent position and thank you for the links.

You might care to note that Ron Bailey at Reason, in a post last year on the meteor strike aspect, http://www.reason.com/news/show/34954.html, takes the position that this is a public good that individuals in free markets are not likely to provide.

Sione December 11, 2006 at 11:24 am

TT

Are you supporting the notion that if an activity is classified “public good” then all individuals be forced pay for it (whether they want to or not)?

Sione

Mathieu Bedard December 11, 2006 at 4:29 pm

If I had heard that nonsense in a comedy I would probably have said that they went too far it’s too ridiculous to even be funny…

M E Hoffer December 11, 2006 at 4:51 pm

If flippin’ NASA really is “all that & a bag of chips”, why aren’t they raising their requisite funding on a project-by-project basis via Prospectus/Merchant Banking?(or, even private donation(s))?

TokyoTom December 11, 2006 at 11:19 pm

Hi Sione; thanks for the question.

No, I’m not suggesting any such thing.

I am aware there there are goods with “public good”-like properties – benefits that cannot be fully captured privately – but I do not take a position that state coercion is therefore justified to produce these goods at levels that government rulers/bureaucrats deem appropriate.

I am aware of the costs of government action and the many ways such coercion is likely to be abused for private benefit by rent-seekers and rent-capturers. In fact, it is very clear that the proposed Moon base is another example of corporate welfare for special interests, and designed to be a distraction from the other disasters that the Bush administration has foisted on us poor Americans (and others also bearing the consequences of our folly).

That said, I have very much enjoyed following the course of astronomical progress through the years that our government has funded through NASA, even as I may wonder how much of it has been a waste of taxpayers’ money and a skewing of incentives that private investors would otherwise face.

And on the issue of cataloguing, tracking and defending against possible strikes from meteor, comets and the like, I do think it would be difficult to expect that a private market would develop to provide these services. Given the fact that protection for one is really protection for all, someone interested in providing these services would not be able to recoup his investment from others. Given the remoteness of the possible event, even self-preservation may not provide a sufficient motivation until it is too late.

Regards,

Tom

M E Hoffer December 12, 2006 at 12:25 am

“I do think it would be difficult to expect that a private market would develop to provide these services. Given the fact that protection for one is really protection for all, someone interested in providing these services would not be able to recoup his investment from others. Given the remoteness of the possible event, even self-preservation may not provide a sufficient motivation until it is too late.”

“That said, I have very much enjoyed following the course of astronomical progress through the years that our government has funded through NASA”

“If flippin’ NASA really is “all that & a bag of chips”, why aren’t they raising their requisite funding on a project-by-project basis via Prospectus/Merchant Banking?(or, even private donation(s))?”

TT,

In your own words, above, you provide the basis for seeing the elements of a market-based solution. Simply, many( see: Insurance companies, as aggregators, and others, on their own ) would see positive value in the ability to ‘protect the Earth’ from Meteors, etc.. Further, others, such as yourself would see value in the additional Astronomical opportunities engendered, as a corollary, by such a project. Still others, would be happy to cleave a fraction of a penny from their “cash back’ awards from their favorite CC Co.. More ‘others’, here corp.(s) of many ilk, would be happy to cut their prices just to bask in the reflected glow of Association, or willingly Pay (Advertise) for right of “sponsorship”. In the core of the transaction still lies, if needed, the ability to broker an honest merchant banking deal to those that wanted to invest in the potential of pecuniary gains, or, barring those, serious tax deductions.

Leave the Market alone, it’s Big enough to take care of Itself.

TokyoTom December 12, 2006 at 1:30 am

Mark, yes, I see some of the outline for a possible market-based provision of meteor-strike protection. Probably insurance firms as aggregators would have the greatest incentives – if they cover meteor-strike related risks. But they might choose simply to eliminate any such coverage. Still, I agree that insurance is a possibility (risk can be spread through reinsurance), though a question remains as to whether governments would allow the insurer to actually act (since their existence may be threatened if the insurer bungles the job).

Not sure I follow your musings about merchant banks or tax deductions.

Sam December 12, 2006 at 4:20 am

My only reasoning where the money on space exploration would have had any pay off is one of making interstellar travel feasible. This would have allowed access to new worlds for habitation and new resources to access.

Since space travel has gone nowhere NASA should become a charity or be discontinued.

M E Hoffer December 12, 2006 at 8:01 am

TT,

With this: “In the core of the transaction still lies, if needed, the ability to broker an honest merchant banking deal to those that wanted to invest in the potential of pecuniary gains, or, barring those, serious tax deductions.”

Like here, on Earth, many, at least some, previously ‘unexplored’ resource extraction plays will sell ‘rights’ to other ‘non-core’( non-target ) Commodities to raise additional funding.

Cu-Ag, is a popular combination.

With NASA, on the Moon, their digging could allow for the sale of similiar ‘rights’ to Ti, for example. Hitting Ti, leads to pecuniary gains, not? Tax deductions from ‘capital losses’.

Neil Craig December 12, 2006 at 9:38 am

I would sack NASA because it is a waste of $16 billion but would put that money into funding X-Prizes for space & high technolohy firsts.

I think many libertarian inclinded people would agree that exploration is something in which the government can legitimately be interested.

Without Columbus no doubt some entrepreneur would have discovered America, but later. Without Lewis & Clark it is probable that Seattle would be in Canada or Russia.

Marenics János December 12, 2006 at 12:02 pm

No libertarian agrees the goverment should be in any exploration.

Sione December 12, 2006 at 12:26 pm

Neil

Columbus did not land on the North American continent so it’s hard to see how it can be said he discovered it. Anyway “America” was discovered long before Columbus. And if certain dishonest Eurocentric prejudices are put aside for a moment it becomes apparant America had been long since “discovered”. There were already people there.

In the absence of Columbus there would have been a lot less suffering in the “New World.” There would have been less torture (floggings and slavery), less death for these are things he did indeed organise when he was present in the “New World”. It could be concluded that govt action led to disaster in this case.

Is there a function for government in exploration? To answer that it must be considered where the government obtains the resources it consumes. If government is to involve itself in space exploration it needs to sequester the property of others. The common and usual method is by coercive confiscation or tax. In other words a theft is to be committed. The questions then are: Is theft a legitimate function of government? Is theft a legitimate function for anyone?

Moving on. When regarding government activities it is often forgotten that there are alternative actions that the consumed resources could have be used for. The opportunity costs are immense. Who should legitimately make the decision abomut what to opportunities forgo and what to do with one’s property and time?

What do you reckon?

Sione

TokyoTom December 13, 2006 at 12:44 am

Mark, sounds like you are now talking about private space exploration generally and not about asteroid defense. In any case, I agree that there may be private interests will to pay for such activities.

But your suggestion of using taxes as an incentive smacks of corporate statism and moral ambivalence. (We should always move towards Freedom, and never towards the State, and this hardly admits of compromise!)

M E Hoffer December 13, 2006 at 1:37 am

TT,

The rectitude of ‘writing off’ an ill-founded venture. against monies otherwise earned, is no more a ‘tax incentive’ than it is the reasonable course of business.

Your continual seduction toward the State is rather obvious.

As I said, above, leave the Market alone, it is, quite, Big enough to take care of Itself.

TokyoTom December 13, 2006 at 8:57 am

Mark, can`t you tell when your leg is being pulled?

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