Today, NASA's space shuttle Endeavour will make its final launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. - part of a $2 billion experiment to the International Space Station to gain information about dark matter and high-energy particles.
Although some, like NASA's Bill Gerstenmaier, the Associate Administrator for Space Operations, are excited about this "unique mission," I am relieved that Endeavor will soon be out of the heavens and retired in the California Science Center.
Taxpayers should be relieved as well. Some $17 billion a year is siphoned away from the American people to fund NASA, a bureaucratic mess of cost overruns and waste. These traits are very typical of all government programs, of course, because of what government's top-heavy, centrally-planning, and coercive structure lacks: the pricing and profit/loss mechanisms that only the market can provide.
The best thing that could happen for the future of space exploration, discovery, and information would be for NASA to retire all of its shuttles, send those billions back to the American people, and open the sky up to the free market. Private entrepreneurs tend to produce and invest in a way that attempts to minimize costs in order to gain profit, while government programs work in the exact opposite manner.
One of the best examples of this is when two MIT students, Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, sent a camera into space to photograph the curvature of the Earth. For what it takes NASA millions of dollars to do, it took them $150. This is because Lee and Yeh, relying on private initiative and the incentive to minimize costs, filled a weather balloon with helium and hung a styrofoam beer cooler underneath to hold the camera. NASA, with the reverse incentives, uses rockets, boosters, and expensive control systems that may draw "oohs" and "ahs," but at the expense of the terrible opportunity costs of taxation.
NASA and its defenders claim, however, that this constant stream of tax revenue has benefited the American public by introducing many inventions and technological advancements, ignoring the broken window fallacy - unintended consquences that accompany percieved production.
Besides, most of these innovations have actually been the result of commercial markets. Telstar I, the world’s first telecommunications satellite, was a product of AT&T’s drive to provide a better communication service (only later to be used by the Defense Department). The telephone, personal computers, the Internet, Velcro, Tang, Tempur-Pedic mattresses, hand-calculators, and the hundreds of products created from the advantage of integrated circuits and semiconductors have advanced our lives through the mutual benefit of buyer and seller. Consumers, not bureaucrats, should decide where precious resources should go.
NASA also inflicts us with a misallocation of labor. The market's profit/loss mechanism is the only way that the labor involved, like scientists, is being put to its most economic and productive use. And like all government programs, it has become increasingly less efficient as time goes by and its goals have become more and more hazy; the "mission creep" of the chaotic absence of market prices.
If NASA were de-funded, the private sector could begin to deliver services that are actually valuable to consumers, things NASA barely emphasizes, like employing robot satellites that gather information about the Earth to supply the high commercial demand for more accurate weather forecasts and geological assessments. Robot satellites can also accomplish most of the things that more expensive manned flights do, just without the rah-rah, nationalistic PR.
Many Americans have sympathetic attachment to the space program, but when the $17 billion a year could be spent actually serving the people's wishes in the marketplace, the case against NASA (and, indeed, nearly all wealth-crushing government programs) grows by the day.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons