Saturday, January 17, 2004

Shilling for Manned Space Flight

I prophesied that there'd be no shortage of conservatives willing to come forward as apologists for the irresponsible direction in which NASA's space programme is heading, and sure enough, the WSJ's been kind enough to make space on its opinion pages for just such a character.

Since the Apollo moon program ended, I think it's fair to say that our federal space program has muddled along without much purpose or conviction. But this week President Bush changed all that when he unveiled a straightforward plan directing NASA to explore the solar system and especially Mars with robotic spacecraft. The space agency is also to construct a human-tended laboratory on the moon. Then, if we learn enough on the moon, and if our robots on Mars have piqued our interest enough, NASA will be told to send people to Mars to investigate. We will proceed in a logical sequence, in our own good time, and with a reasonable amount of money spent each year over many years.

In my estimation, that's a pretty darned good plan. We've never had one like it. Even Apollo didn't plan beyond landing a man on the moon in the 1960s and returning him safely. This is, as the students who write me all the time would say, "so cool."

Sadly, a lot of my fellow Americans won't think it's so cool. You'll be able to recognize them pretty easily.[Grinches!] They'll be the ones moaning about how awful it is we might spend a federal buck on something other than their favorite federally-subsidized program and how it's going to add to the deficit something awful. In an Associated Press story that put the cost of a Mars mission at "nearly $1 trillion," one politician quipped, "They want to send the red ink to the red planet." [Damned tightwads, worrying about how taxpayer money's being spent! How dare they!]

All I've got to say is please, for pity's sake, stop worrying about NASA stealing money from your favorite federal program and adding to the deficit. Out of a $2 trillion-plus budget in 2004, human resources programs (Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Social Security, etc.) will get an astounding 34%! In contrast, NASA has the smallest budget of all the major agencies in the federal government. In fact, its budget has represented less than 1% of the total budget each year since 1977 and it will probably never get more than a fraction above that, even with this new plan. [What's a few billion dollars in the grand scheme of things? Live a little, dude!]

This Homer Hickam character is as pathetic as he is predictable. One could use the very same sort of reasoning he's peddling to sell oneself on the merits of absolutely any pie in the sky program whatsoever: the real reason for his enthusiasm has nothing to do with science or return on investment, but because, as he himself admits, he thinks manned space flight is "cool." Amazing the nonsense one can pick up by watching too much pulp science-fiction.