Space

Is NASA Worthless Or Just Underfunded?

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The L.A. Times opinion section (now home to former reason staffers Tim Cavanaugh and Matt Welch) runs a neat feature called Dust-Up. It pits two well-informed people against each other for a week's worth of chatter on their area of expertise. This week, it's space:

First up yesterday was Homer Hickam, a novelist, Vietnam vet, and former NASA engineer, in the role of NASA booster with an anti-government bent:

NASA is a timid bureaucracy that goes crawling to Congress every year for a pittance (less than 1% of the federal budget) and will do anything — anything — to please….

I say why not raid the federal budget for it? I mean, it's not like it's spending its annual $3 trillion (!!) of our money on much that's worth anything, anyway….Did you know the Department of Labor (that this department exists at all deserves another ! from me) gets four times more money than NASA? Health and Human Services 26 times more? Housing and Urban Development (!!!) gets twice as much? You want to talk about waste? Just peruse a list of their programs! It will make you weep.

My friend and private space guru Rand Simberg responds to Hickham's cheerful optimism with harsh reality:

If NASA were to put forth a plan by which it enabled hundreds or thousands of people to go into space, I think that would be worth going back and asking the Congress and Office of Management and Budget to fund. Sadly, NASA isn't capable of that, by its nature as a federal agency, because it would mean too much relinquishing of control to what it perceives to be a frighteningly uncertain and unpredictable private sector, with too few opportunities for pork in specific districts.

Today they're talking about peopling Mars. Later in the week, they'll hit evolution in space, post-communist space exploration and "other far-out topics." Keep checking in at the L.A. Times for more.

And go here and here for more space stuff.

NEXT: The Tragedy of the Anticommons

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  1. Does anybody care about space if we can’t go into space or spend a week on the moon? Sure, researchers care, and we should care by extension, but we don’t.

  2. Is NASA Worthless Or Just Underfunded?

    The former.

  3. Why bother with NASA when we have a working Stargate program?

  4. I don’t understand why NASA still exists, beyond being the preeminent mapper of orbital debris.

  5. Someone has to drive RC cars into Martian craters. If not NASA, then who?

  6. Hey, but the kids love it.

  7. They’re both right.

    Disclaimer – former NASA employee. Also USGS. You wanna talk small budget? You could buy the USGS with your next paycheck.

    Did I not just read last week that the White House had requested another $50B or something for Iraq?

  8. I know I’ll be perceived as a heretic for saying the following, but:

    I think there’s a place in the federal government for NASA.

    In principle, it should not be in existence.

    In practice, however, NASA spends a relatively tiny amount of money and conducts a ton of research.

    Article by physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson pointing out that Hubble repairs lead to a breakthrough in breast cancer detection.

    All I’m saying is: of all the things we can cut when the eventual libertarian revolution comes, can NASA be near the bottom of the list? Please?

    [/slightly liberal moment caused by years of aspiring to be an Aerospace Engineer as a child]

  9. err… Hubble repairs led to a breakthrough…

  10. When the Inevitable Libertarian Revolution comes, NASA has two places it could be; On Mars or against the wall with the other bureaucrats.

    Or perhaps NASA could flee into exile orbiting Jupiter, taking its ill-gotten photos of Uranus with it.

  11. If NASA ceased to exist, we wouldn’t get cool shit like photos of Stephen Hawking on the Vomit Comet.

  12. On a personal level, I like NASA and if they created a fund of “Give $100 to NASA/year”, I’d do it. Unfortunately, I don’t think you could get more than a few thousand of us together to give NASA “free” money, like it gets from the government.

    But then again, I’m just a spendthrift.

  13. well i think without nasa we wouldnt be as advanced as we are, its not just about space they also create many other technologies for us here on earth, like aircraft, medical equipment that saves lives , satelites , revolutionary software for analyzing fluid dynamics for the body , heart pumps if you lot can do any better go ahead…. you just dont realise what they do, they have probably saved thousands of peoples lives and you didnt even know it. maybe not now but sometime in the future us going into space could actually save us here on earth there are valuable resources on other planets and i think nasa are very underfunded but i do think they could be wiser with the money they spend.

  14. I thought that was one enormous sentence. But no…. there is one period in there. It’s hard to find, but it’s there.

  15. Two actually. An ellipsis is three periods. He used four so one can assume the last one is a real period.

  16. You want to talk about waste? Just peruse a list of their programs!

    No doubt a big waste of money…but it is funny that the first place he thinks the government should spend the peoples money is where he works…rather then simply giving it back and let the people who created that wealth spend it as they like.

    What an asshole.

  17. Like any space junkie libertarian, NASA is not on the top of my list of government organizations to eradicate with extreme prejudice. But it is on the list, nevertheless. And as far as manned flight goes, I’m just about ready for it to quit, already. Might be a different story if NASA was doing anything positive in manned spaceflight.

  18. No doubt a big waste of money…but it is funny that the first place he thinks the government should spend the peoples money is where he works…

    Where he used to work. Homer Hickam hasn’t worked for NASA since his first novel, ahem, took off.

  19. And as far as manned flight goes, I’m just about ready for it to quit, already. Might be a different story if NASA was doing anything positive in manned spaceflight.

    Manned flight has been an almost total bust. The unmanned program, however, does come up with neat and valuable scientific discoveries. So, yeah, NASA would be near the bottom of my list of government agencies to shutter, too. Although I’d get to it eventually. Plus, the unmanned space program is probably the least-destructive federal program in terms of crowding out private alternatives.

  20. We may–may–go back to the Moon for another look see with NASA running things. But we won’t see a serious manned presence outside of LEO until the private sector gets cranking. Or until there’s some stupid political reason for us or another country to build Moonbase Alpha. Bah.

  21. Or until there’s some stupid political reason for us or another country to build Moonbase Alpha. Bah.

    Wait. Wasn’t the moon blasted out of Earth orbit on Sept. 13, 1999? I don’t think I’ve seen Martin Landau since then.

  22. Franklin Harris,

    Indeed. We noted that sad anniversary over at Urkobold last month. I miss the Moon.

  23. Does anybody care about space if we can’t go into space or spend a week on the moon? Sure, researchers care, and we should care by extension, but we don’t.

    I care.

  24. SHIT! That should have been:

    Does anybody care about space if we can’t go into space or spend a week on the moon? Sure, researchers care, and we should care by extension, but we don’t.

    I care.

  25. Stevo,

    I am your father.

    Wait, that’s not what I meant to say. What I meant to say–or rather, ask–is your point that NASA is like kissing your sister?

  26. As I said on another thread. An Earth Defense Force should be created to protect our planet from Near-Earth Asteroids and to track and destroy unused satellites or send them into Earth’s atmosphere to be destroyed. Perhaps NASA could be used for that insted of its current program. A base on the moon (Go Moonbase Alpha!) may be necessary. As far as remote controlled,unmanned robots are concerned, this should be considered as Phase 1 for the exploration of the Solar System. I’m all for manned missions into space.

  27. The only redeeming quality of NASA is that it’s the only single agency with enough resources to send people and machines on deep space missions, especially the near-earth asteroid blocking kind.

    Otherwise it’s rubbish, and chances are that it won’t even be able to stop an asteroid properly because it’s mostly staffed by lazy bureaucratic hacks. What is especially irksome is the usual canard tossed out that NASA develops technologies which contribute to humanity: broadly speaking, it’s not true. How people maintain the delusion that an agency which hasn’t updated its main equipment (the space shuttle) in over thirty years is a source of innovation is beyond me. Only free-market companies have the innovative energy and the economic calculatory capacity to develop new technologies AND actually implement them to benefit the lives of ordinary people.

    I have the same lukewarm affection for NASA that other commenters have, but I temper that with the fact that I also like Star Trek a great deal more.

  28. Many years ago I went to a job interview with NASA (the JPL facility). They wanted someone who could write a computer program that could schedule the use of satellite dishes for various users. I asked if they has considered looking and at commercial scheduling algorithms, like those used for scheduling buses, airplanes, school classes, and the like.

    They looked back at me like I was from outer space.

  29. de stijl,
    Regarding that Steven Hawking zero-g flight, it was actually done on a privately owned and operated aircraft, not the NASA “Vomit Comet.” The company (Zero-Gravity Corporation) is led by the same guy who ran the X-Prize Competition. I can’t remember what a ticket costs (something like $4-5k for a couple dozen zero-g, lunar-g, and martian-g parabolas), but anyone can buy one on the open market.

    ~Jon

  30. Lamar,
    Does anybody care about space if we can’t go into space or spend a week on the moon? Sure, researchers care, and we should care by extension, but we don’t.

    Some of us are trying to change that (the part about us not being able to go). There are several firms out there trying to make at least suborbital spaceflight available to the public, and at least a few of them working on the getting to the moon angle (though that’s a much harder nut to crack–don’t hold your breath it isn’t going to happen too soon).

  31. I’m very disturbed by some of the views expressed here. Space exploration and colonization is our future, if we simply say it’s not worth the money and abandon it then we have done a major disservice to not only ourselves but future generations.

  32. 3 good reasons to continue funding for NASA:

    1. So they can waste trillions of dollars on making their toys and playing with them.

    2. It’s “patriotic.”

    3. So NASA can keep its bureaucracy.

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