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April 2003, Volume 21, Number 4

The Trouble With NASA

William L. Anderson

When I heard of the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, one of the first things that came to my mind was how little effect it had upon the lives of ordinary people—as compared to the Challenger disaster of 1986. I was sitting in the stands at a YMCA youth basketball game, and from what I could tell, the accident was hardly on the lips of anyone.

Nearby televisions in the exercise rooms blared the news, but people hardly were paying attention, unlike the destruction of the Challenger, when millions were glued to their television sets as the shuttle, carrying teacher Christa McAuliffe, disintegrated moments after takeoff. (Ironically, both accidents occurred in the week following the Super Bowl.) 

But while the outpouring of public grief for Columbia has not matched Challenger, both accidents have impacted our lives in ways we cannot easily detect, and both disasters clearly demonstrate the limits of the "national greatness" campaigns that have highlighted public life for the last five decades. 

In a more perfect world, or at least one in which the free market reigned, the space shuttle accidents would be clear signals that government space travel represents the height of fiscal foolishness. Alas, the statist gods of our age have used these mishaps to further the state's agenda, which is being done ultimately at the expense of our freedom, President George W. Bush's demand for an extra $500 million for NASA this year eloquently making my point.

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) was born in the wake of the hysteria that came about after the Soviet Union launched the tiny satellite Sputnik in 1957. After the Russians launched a manned spacecraft—and returned it safely to Earth—in 1961, President John F. Kennedy promised that the United States would land someone on the moon and bring him back by the end of the decade. 

The promise outlived JFK, but came to fruition in the summer of 1969 with the words, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It seemed that socialist space travel truly had proven to be one of the keys to "national greatness," and certainly many people reveled in this monumental technological accomplishment.

Ever since the "success" of the Manhattan Project, in which an all-star cast of government scientists created the atomic bomb that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in 1945 at the end of World War II, the US government has engaged in numerous crash programs to accomplish monumental goals. 

Following Manhattan was NASA; President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty"; Richard Nixon's "war on cancer"; Jimmy Carter's short-lived "synfuels" program; and the current "war on AIDS," which have consumed huge portions of the federal budgets under four presidents.

All of these programs either have ended in abject failure or have eaten up hundreds of billions of tax dollars with questionable results. While any one of these programs—including the ostensibly "successful" Manhattan Project—can be clearly demonstrated to be disastrous in their own right, I would like to deal with NASA since it has managed to get back into the news by losing one of its vaunted spacecrafts and seven astronauts.

When discussing NASA and its impact upon our society, one must deal with myths that have been spawned by the agency and its supporters over the last four decades, the first being that NASA, supposedly driven by technology, has created new technologies that have been easily transferred to civilian use. Thus, the argument goes, had not NASA existed, we most likely would not have had the modern computer system, microchips, transistors, and the like, or at least their development would have lagged far behind where they are today.

The reality of modern space travel—in our case, the shuttles—is quite different. As Gregg Easterbrook noted in his recent commentary in Time, the shuttle vehicles, more than 20 years old and operating off of a 30-year-old design, are technologically inferior to nearly any computer driven consumer product, including children's video games. We have no evidence that the space program has created on its own any of the new technologies that make our material lives better; instead, the program has utilized existing technologies.

The technological inferiority of NASA manned space gear is not unlike the situation that faces Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers every day, who must rely on obsolete equipment in order to safely guide passenger airliners through takeoff and landing. While Americans have been trained to think for decades that government is ahead of the technology curve, the nature of state operations guarantees that government sectors that depend upon high technologies are always going to lag behind private sector operations.

The reason for this situation, in short, is politics. Equipment must be manufactured, and behind each manufacture stands an interest group that fights change. Interest groups develop ties with politicians, and politicians decide where allocation of tax monies will go. This is not just true in democratic systems. China, for example, manufactured and used steam-powered locomotives long after diesels were being utilized because entire regions where these steam engines were made were totally dependent upon the government's rail transportation decisions.

The second myth is that we need NASA and manned space travel to "bring our nation together." These past few days I have read the glowing (and, sadly, predictable) tributes to "American heroes," along with the usual words of determination that "the show must go on."

Now, I am not discounting the electrifying effect of certain events to unite people in a common interest. Like many middle-aged Americans, I remember when John Glenn orbited the Earth three times, and many of us can remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard "the Eagle has landed." Likewise, I remember when Challenger exploded, and how schoolchildren watching a teacher being taken into space were devastated as the realities of the danger of space travel hit home.

Yet, all of this desire for "national resolve" also reminds me of something else. In the cult movie Animal House, someone grabs the baton from a band director and marches the band into a blind alley that is blocked by a wall. However, when they reach the wall, the band members, instead of stopping, continue marching, oblivious to the fact that there is a wall in front of them. 

This has been the real symbol of manned space travel under a government regime. Were space travel a private, profit-seeking venture, owners would have the incentive to keep up with technologies and balance the risk of manned spacecraft with any benefits that might accrue from such activities. 

Instead, we have politicians giving eloquent but meaningless eulogies, refusing to admit they have been wrong when the evidence is overwhelming, and interest groups that are enriching themselves at the public trough, insisting that we not turn back. There are too many examples of this sort of thing to count, from the Vietnam quagmire to the endless military action in the Persian Gulf to the bogus "security" offered by government agents to Americans waiting fearfully for terrorists to strike us again.

The real lesson of the Columbia disaster is that government enterprises are failures, and in the case of the space program, dangerous failures. Unfortunately, politicians and their worshipful pundits refuse to heed what is obvious. Last week, seven brave individuals were incinerated in a modern technological meltdown; we can expect more of the same in the future, but when it happens, don't look for anyone in power to learn anything constructive. .FM

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WilliamL.Anderson teaches economics at Frostburg State College in Maryland (banderson@mail.frostburg.edu).

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