The government has decided to stop doing something that it does badly.
That's a rare occurrence, so pause to savor it. This week, President Obama announced that he was putting the kibosh on George W. Bush's $100 billion Constellation program, which had the short term goal of getting Americans back on the moon by 2020. This was a reasonable response to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) recent history with manned missions—a long, sad tale of bureaucratic woe, complete with unreliable cost estimates, missed deadlines, and limited scientific payoff. And even this big move is far from revolutionary: NASA's overall budget will continue to grow, if only by a modest 2 percent. But federal space money is being reshuffled along with the program's priorities, and change makes people nervous.
And in Washington, D.C., an attack of the nerves generally manifests itself in howls of outrage at committee hearings. So on Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) dove right in, with a thinly veiled threat: "When the president says that he's going to cancel Constellation, I can tell you that to muster the votes and to overcome that, it's going to be very, very difficult." While Nelson—and nearly everyone else quoted below—talked about the importance of the grand vision of space exploration, when they got down to brass tacks their concerns were about constituent jobs. About 7,000 space jobs in Florida are at stake in the revision of the NASA budget.
In the traditional howl-of-outrage committee meeting of the House Armed Forces Committee on Wednesday, Rep. Rob Bishop, (R-Utah) said "thousands of people in Utah…are losing good-paying, high-tech jobs. Many of the employees at [rocket manufacturer] ATK have been with the Minuteman program for 35 years or more and have unique experience and capability that will now be lost to our country."
Luckily, we are not living in the 17th century Mughal empire of Shah Jahan, of whom it is rumored that to protect the secrets of the Taj Mahal and guarantee that it remain unique he cut off the hands of the architect who designed it. For good measure, he killed, maimed, or blinded the builders as well. Nor are we in the second century B.C. under the reign of Qin Shi Huang, who had his now-famous tomb stocked with thousands of life-sized terra cotta warriors—and then proceeded to kill all of the workers on the project.
Included in the proposed changes to the NASA budget: $6 billion to firms, including startups, focused on developing technologies necessary for human transport to and from the International Space Station. Surely some of that cash will be used to snap up the truly experienced and unique space workers.
Similar complaints bubbled up in Huntsville, Alabama, where 2,500 people work at the Marshall Space Flight Center, most of whom were part of the moon shoot project. "The president's plan is certainly a jolt to the area," reports a local ABC affiliate. "Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle is asking Obama to reconsider. He says the cuts will affect jobs as well as the country's space psyche."
A letter to the editor in the Lakeland, Florida, Ledger perfectly captures the confused logic:
President Barack Obama has assured Florida that the government will give us $1.25 billion to start building a high-speed-rail line that will supposedly create about 23,000 jobs. Yet he has decided that the NASA return-to-the-moon project should be canceled.
With this cancellation and the ending of the Space Shuttle program later this year, how many thousands of jobs will be lost on the Space Coast and in space-related industries? It is time to decide what our priorities really are, and move to create or save the space-industry jobs.
The letter writer gives no suggestion for why one might prefer space jobs to train jobs. And likewise, all jobs are created (or saved) equal when it comes to government figures—they are each infinitely precious. And because the nation is fixated on job creation, it's tempting to evaluate all forms of government action in the unit of jobs. Every new government program isn't just vital, it's also a vital engine of job creation. The demise of every old program is measured in jobs lost. Meanwhile, the federal workforce is now the largest ever with 1.28 million workers on the civilian federal government payrolls.
But instead of job counts, we should look at what's working and what's not when we decide how to spend federal money. Good workers will find new jobs. And jobs lost—or simply taken off the federal rolls—would be a small price to pay for a revitalized and re-prioritized space industry.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.