Space and science are pretty important issues to me. I am a bit of a “geek” when it comes to astronomy and physics and can easily lose myself in wonderment when contemplating the infinite universe. For this reason, this topic is generally more personal and something that may seem like I take a divergent view from my general stance in favor of market solutions over government solutions. I do not however since I have always recognized a limited role governments must play in the direction of society. I think one place where the government has been and should continue to be involved is in space exploration. However, the U.S. government is poised to cede space exploration to more vibrant and emerging economies.
Nasa has begun to wind down construction of the rockets and spacecraft that were to have taken astronauts back to the Moon — effectively dismantling the US human spaceflight programme despite a congressional ban on its doing so.
Legislators have accused President Obama’s Administration of contriving to slip the termination of the Constellation programme through the back door to avoid a battle on Capitol Hill.
Many economists observe that the government is necessary to do the things that the market can not. I believe space exploration to be one of these things currently. I also believe having a robust space program is vital to our national interest and security. The reason I believe there is no real market at the current date for space exploration and research is because of the initial cost of investment and the inability to predict the returns. The space program has been an absolute boon for private industry providing innovations and new products across a wide spectrum of market segments from computing to sporting goods. However, most of these innovations and every day consumer products we take for granted were a result of accident or fortunate side effect of other developments in the space program. A filtration system developed for water purification on the Space Shuttle is adapted for home use, or the new “space age material” used in an Astronauts space suit is adopted by Speedo, but the initial research and development cost was not something that could be bore by private industry. A company is not going to develop a new probe to land on an asteroid without knowing the return on that investment (which may just be increased knowledge for mankind). It would be difficult for anybody to write a proposal showing the earnings potential of landing a rover on Titan to search for life. This is where government can be effective if not entirely cost efficient since innovation and bleeding edge technology is not an exact science. I think most people would agree there is value when such an endeavor would add to the collective pool of human knowledge. It is hard to monetarily quantify such a venture.
The current privatizations in the space industry are only a result of the expensive and necessary groundwork laid by the government and their preferred contractors. Right now this is a nascent market that only carters to the super wealthy and government as its demand base. Outsourcing space ferrying duties to private industry may be a step to privatization of space, but we are a long, long way off from having important functions of the space program in private hands. In the meantime the government has to continue humanity’s quest for the stars. Mr. Obama’s position of NASA defunding is almost as asinine as his position on alternative energy. In both cases he seems to think you can just force one in favor of the other through government decree alone. In the case of fossil fuels, we will just stop drilling and mining old dirty fuels (especially in the wake of the BP Gulf disaster) and magically switch to new clean sources without any hint of market viability and with 250 million American passenger vehicles that run on gas. Now he is doing the same thing in the space program, passing it to a market with no proven viability. Free market proponents recognize that a government has a limited but legitimate role in some economic decisions of a society (money coinage, standardizations of exchange, prosecution of fraud and prevention of monopoly and collusion as other examples). Space exploration is one of those places as well.
There are some things I am sure we as a society do not want in private hands as I mentioned. For instance, the entire American nuclear ICBM backbone is that of NASA Saturn rocket technology for the most part. If there was a military advantage to explore to bottom of the ocean, we would be exploring the bottom of the ocean but you don’t shoot an ICBM under water. Communications technologies, missile defense and other avionics are examples of military applications that come from the space program. Do we really want these sorts of traditionally governmental functions put into the hands of what could become high-tech mercenaries sold to the highest bidder (not to say this doesn’t happen already)?
Regardless of your position of the necessity of government funding of space exploration, I am not sure how a President who claims to be one who will embrace science can justify huge outlays of government capital for things such as a GM / GMAC or AIG bailouts at the expense of scientific advancement? It is easy to reconcile Obama’s science agenda once an observer realizes the President abhors science and favors politics. He choose politics, junk science and a complete fraud in his stances on anthropogenic global warming so he is not divergent when he desires an additional $50 billion in bailouts of state government unions over all of mankind’s scientific pursuits.
Mr. Obama uses the argument of “jobs” for this new call for government spending while ignoring all the jobs that will be lost through defunding of the space program directly and indirectly. Jobs however are immaterial when you simply look at the incongruity of President Obama’s stance. The projected cost of the Constellation program over the next 10 years is $100 billion roughly. The U.S. government gave this amount to AIG in one fiscal year, and AIG contributes nothing of value to society. There is no doubt in my mind which is more valuable to the general welfare (especially since any bailout to a particular company is specific welfare and forbidden by the Constitution which is another argument all together). AIG has been a economic black hole for the average American taxpayer when we should be studying black holes and relativity in the cosmos not here on Earth. We can now add one more broken promise to Obama’s growing list since as someone who was to embrace science he has boldly chosen to go nowhere.