Space for Space

John Derbyshire has a compelling article on the merits of the Space Shuttle program. His basic premise is that the program is the “folly of our age,” accomplishing little in light of the vast governmental expenses involved:

There is no longer much pretense that shuttle flights in particular, or manned space flight in general, has any practical value. You will still occasionally hear people repeating the old NASA lines about the joys of microgravity manufacturing and insights into osteoporesis, but if you repeat these tales to a materials scientist or a physiologist, you will get peals of laughter in return. To seek a cure for osteoporesis by spending $500 million to put seven persons and 2,000 tons of equipment into earth orbit is a bit like… well, it is so extravagantly preposterous that any simile you can come up with falls flat. It is like nothing else in the annals of human folly.

Having no practical justification for squirting so much of the nation’s wealth up into the stratosphere, our politicians — those (let us charitably assume there are some) with no financial or electoral interest in the big contractor corporations who feed off the shuttle — fall back on romantic appeals to Mankind’s Destiny.

I’m inclined to agree with Derbyshire. The space program is no longer as closely connected with national security as it was during the cold war. Is the expense that the American taxpayers have to incur worth the benefits of the Space Shuttle? Velcro, Tang, and freeze-dried ice cream are nice, but how much less money from our paychecks would go to Uncle Sam if the program were scrapped?

This doesn’t mean that space exploration has to end. Recent private ventures have proven that government involvement is not required. Why not let free enterprise lead the way?

I don’t have strong feelings on this one way or the other, so does anyone know of any good arguments for keeping the Space Shuttle program?

3 thoughts on “Space for Space”

  1. Sarge: Good point, and it’s one of the reasons I think that space travel shouldn’t be abandoned willy-nilly. The tricky part is justifying the enormous government (i.e., civilian) expense.

    With private industry, inspired entrepreneurs can voluntarily contribute to exploratory measures.

    On the other hand, the question remains as to whether or not Columbus would have made his venture if not for the help of the Portuguese government…

  2. Jared: Wasn’t it the Spanish Monarchs that funded Columbus? 🙂

    Seriously though, I don’t have a good argument for keeping the space shuttle program. Johnson, Nixon and Ford made sure it wouldn’t be viable through their policies and the actions of Congress in the Vietnam era and late 70’s. I agree that it is a waste of money, but I don’t classify at as the failure that Derbyshire does.

    The small government type in me feels that the gov’t has no role in this, however as space has become a serious issue from a national security standpoint I see no way around it at this point. Besides, NASA expenditures are a small piece of the gov’t pie at less than 3/4 of a percent.

    The primary problem with NASA at this point is a lack of a true mission. We no longer have the space race to focus the political class and the public. Instead it’s just another agency that’s used to send money to certain congresional districts.

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