Houston, We Have a (Spending) Problem

This month, NASA’s space shuttle program goes quietly into the night. As The Economist recently put it, “[H]umanity’s dreams of a future beyond that final frontier have, largely, faded.” American taxpayers would be wise to celebrate cutting the shuttle program, since they are not getting increasing returns on their investment. The space program should not remain a federal priority because it is failing to produce new technologies at the same rate.

Supporters of subsidized space exploration often argue that the program has continued value because it produced technological innovation in the past. Although it is impossible to know with certainty what might have been if the federal government never funded NASA, I suspect that American entrepreneurs would have invented cordless tools and smoke detectors anyway. This is the broken window fallacy, which Robert Taylor identified when he made the case for defunding NASA.

Even if subsidized space exploration was the necessary for today's technology, America's pace of innovation has slowed. In The Great Stagnation, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen argues that Americans have reached a "technological plateau." We have already grabbed all the low-hanging fruit, and future technological advances will be difficult to achieve. This is directly applicable to space exploration, in which the pace of innovation has certainly slowed. Sending a man to the moon was relatively easy. The next steps are going to be much harder to achieve, such as building a colony on Mars or sending a person to another solar system.

Present-day shuttle missions do not produce new technologies that improve our daily lives anymore — at least not at the same rate that they did in the 1960's. Individuals are more affected by the invention of the ear thermometer than through an understanding of dark matter. This is not to say that understanding dark matter has zero value, but the government can fund programs that have greater impact. The $17 billion that the federal government annually spends on NASA could be spent in other areas of the economy, or returned to taxpayers. Supporters may argue that NASA's funding accounts for less than 1% of the total budget, but this not a compelling reason for keeping the program. The U.S. is making cuts to other areas in the budget, so is this an admission that space travel is more important than public policy problems much closer to home, such as education and fixing roads?

Some argue that if China builds spaceships and America does not, then Americans will feel like we are losing and in decline. Not only is this irrelevant to the question of whether the federal government should fund the space program, this is a poor basis for policymaking. Is protecting the collective ego worth the $17 billion price tag? Is it worth the opportunity cost?

America is not engaged in a space race with China in the same way that it was with the Soviets during the Cold War. The Chinese do not pose the same threat to national security. If the Chinese government decides that space travel is a worthy investment, then they can pursue it using their own resources, or so may entrepreneurs in the private sector. Furthermore, if the Chinese happen to develop new technologies or knowledge in the process, then Americans can benefit by trading with them. Whether other countries are pursuing space exploration is not relevant to our decision to stop space shuttles. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons