It's  Time  to  Scrap  NASA

Commentary by Andrew K. Dart
Copyright 2006.  All rights reserved.

The federal government seems determined to spend money on scientific research, and the general public seems to approve of every such project, without regard to the limitations of government set forth in the Constitution, or the lack of an end product.  This is partly due to apathy and a lack of cognitive thinking skills on the part of the average taxpayer.  Some of the blame also goes to TV "journalists" who report everything the government does without ever questioning the wisdom or the cost.

The most famous multi-billion-dollar government research projects include the Superconducting Super Collider (partially completed, then abandoned, near Waxahachie, Texas), and the Hubble Space Telescope.  If you ask a government official about the purpose of these (or any of several other) multi-billion dollar projects, the answer always includes something about trying to "develop a theory about the origin of the universe".  In fact, the whole purpose of the "basic research" in projects of this kind is to disprove the Bible's story of creation, which is at the very least a "theory about the origin of the universe", and is widely available at little or no cost.
Copyright 2016 by Andrew K. Dart, all rights reserved.

Middle class taxpayers are often perturbed when they learn about the various ways that the government wastes money — especially by funding pointless "pork barrel" projects.  The most wasteful of these are collectively known as "bridges to nowhere."  NASA fits easily into that category.

The 2015 appropriation for NASA is $18,010,200,000. [Source This of course is without the Space Shuttle -- as NASA astronauts have to ride Russian rockets to the International Space Station.

It is time for average Americans to begin questioning the assumptions made about extravagant scientific research done at the taxpayers' expense.  This is especially true of NASA.  No one seems to notice that almost everything done by NASA is trivial, such as the endless series of manned space flights ostensibly conducted to study such things as the effects of weightlessness on plants and insects.  (Who cares what those effects might be?)  The only activity in space that could be authorized by the Constitution would be projects connected in some way to national defense.  But the US military has its own rockets and apparently has little use for NASA facilities.

NASA is wasteful and inefficient, squandering the public's goodwill and $13.5 billion annually. While the government has a legitimate defense role in space, commercial ventures, and most scientific research and exploration, ideally should be left to the private sector. [0]

The space program is funded by tax dollars -- the redistribution of wealth from one person to another.  While space research is perhaps the least offensive recipient of government funding, the fundamental problem remains:  space research has nothing to do with the legitimate function of government. [1]

Unfortunately the percentage of Americans who are familiar with the Constitution and its intended purpose seems to be steadily declining, as is the number of taxpayers who understand the meaning of a billion dollars.  (Pork-barrel spending is a problem larger than NASA.)  My concern in particular is the enormous cost of the International Space Station, "a financial sinkhole whose only purpose is its own existence"* and an endless string of pointless space shuttle flights, and the apparent fact that the only return on our investment is political payback.

When President Reagan first proposed it, the International Space Station was supposed to cost $8 billion.  Through the years, that number climbed like a rocket, even though the station design shrank in size and scope.  At one point, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, estimated the bill for the orbiting research platform and the shuttle flights to support it was approaching $100 billion.  [2]

Back in the early 1980s, the NASA administrator's office ignored higher cost estimates and told the White House that the price tag was $8 billion.  [P]residential counselor Edwin Meese approved the $8 billion price tag, saying, "Let's get our foot in the water so that we have a commitment and then we can worry about the long-term costs later." [3] [See note A below.]

Space Station Alpha began as an instrument of the Cold War when President Reagan announced its inception in 1984. ... NASA dedicated the next eight years to spending an astounding $10 billion dollars repeatedly producing and then discarding mere blueprints and other paper studies, all without even cutting a single piece of metal or attaching a single bolt.  Once the USSR fell in 1991, though, the Cold War justification for the program (if not NASA itself) essentially vanished.  The defense industry approached a recession, and potentially unemployed aerospace specialists needed work.  Thus, in 1993 former president Bill Clinton ordered NASA to "streamline" the station and also include Russia (a country where the Gore family had reportedly had very lucrative financial dealings in the past, thanks to some friends who apparently deserved some form of reciprocation). [4]

NASA has overspent by some 4.8 billion dollars on the ISS, placing itself on course for a final construction tab of more than 30 billion as compared to an original forecast of 17.4 billion.  By some unofficial estimates, the total cost of building and operating the ISS over its 10-year lifespan could be 100 billion dollars. [5]

Originally sold as an $8 billion program, [the Space Station] will cost more than $94 billion to build, launch and operate, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office. [6]

The main reason NASA continues to waste billions of taxpayer dollars every year on the Space Station and other obsolete programs is because it is afraid.  NASA fears taxpayers won't buy a space program built on real ... space science.  Instead, NASA feeds taxpayers the warmed-over mush that the space program is the latest foreign policy fad, another government public works program, or a serious way to cure breast cancer. [7]

Most outrageous of all, NASA has now dusted off its plans to send humans to Mars -- a truly nutty proposal by George Bush ["41"] that was estimated to cost $400 billion. [8]

[A] growing number of critics (including the National Research Council) characterize the [space] station's worth as scientifically dubious.  For instance, many of the medical studies NASA hopes to conduct have already been performed aboard Russia's Mir space station. [9]

The International Space Station serves little or no military purpose other than to pacify the Russian government.  It is simply a mechanism to funnel money from the US into the Russian economy.  The Cold War is over!  We no longer need to intimidate the Russians by making pinpoint landings on the Moon, or by performing other feats of high technology to prove our military superiority.

For the Clinton administration, the space station program remains a highly visible symbol of cooperation in the post-Cold War world and a concrete way to funnel money to Russia as the former communist nation struggles to convert to a free market economy. [10]

The Clinton administration brought Russia into the space station program in 1993, even though Russian participation did not add scientific value to the project.  The administration has not answered congressional concerns that Russia has diverted some of the more then $600 million in NASA cash it has received to modernize its strategic nuclear missile fleet.  The Strategic Rocket Forces controls the Russian Space Agency.  NASA has not audited the cash sent to Russia. [11]

The space shuttle is not about scientific research; it is about perpetuating jobs at NASA by fueling patriotic pride, which helps to prevent people from asking tough questions about the costs and the benefits.  And the scheme works well, until and unless there is a catastrophic failure.  Anyone who believes that we need to learn more about "the effects of weightlessness on ants and bees" (the purported mission of the last flight of space shuttle Columbia, which ended in the deaths of all seven astronauts) probably also believes that John Glenn rode the space shuttle in 1998 for purely scientific reasons.  In reality, a ride on the space shuttle is the ultimate political junket.  In Senator Glenn's case, it was regarded by some as payback for stonewalling in the 1997 Thompson hearings.  These hearings were conducted to investigate ties between the Clinton White House and communist Chinese campaign cash and the illegal use of government resources for political fundraising.

"All of the reasons for this flight spewed out by NASA are lies.  If the scientific data is so important, where is Glenn's backup?" stated [Space Frontier Foundation President Rick] Tumlinson, pointing out that every other U.S. Payload Specialist flown on the Shuttle since 1984 has had a backup, with the exception of similar junkets for Senator Jake Garn and Congressman Bill Nelson.  "NASA was told to do this by the White House, or volunteered to do it for the White House.  Everything else was made up after the fact." [12]

Sixteen days after the [Thompson] Committee was forced to end its investigation, on January 16, 1998, NASA "named John Glenn to the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery, scheduled to launch in October...." [13]

"Sending Ohio's Sen. John Glenn, who in 1962 became the first American in orbit, back into space on the shuttle in 1998 was NASA's version of bread and circuses." [14]

The political corruption of space started with Sen. Jake Garn, who demanded a shuttle ride in 1985 as part of his "legislative oversight" -- a silly excuse for a junket.  It was the first time an American grabbed a space seat as a privilege, not as an honor won through merit in open competition with other brave Americans.  The political stench continued with Rep. Bill Nelson's flight eight months later -- another taxpayer-paid ticket to an orbital Disneyland for VIPs. [15]

Manned space flights do almost nothing that cannot be done just as well and far cheaper with unmanned space vehicles.

[A]nything the military wants to do in space can be done better by unmanned spy, communications and, potentially, armed satellites. ... Most space researchers believe that unmanned space vehicles, which can fly anywhere in the solar system, can accomplish more scientific research than any number of shuttle flights, or a space station confined to a low Earth orbit. [16]

[C]ritics argue that... much of the research conducted in space can be done just as well on Earth, and that the projects are only on the shuttle or space station for their promotional value.  NASA justifies its expenditures in part by saying experiments that take advantage of the microgravity of orbiters might one day lead to scientific breakthroughs such as a cure for cancer, AIDS or other devastating diseases. [17]

What nonsense!

"Anybody who believes that, I have a bridge to sell them," said Robert L. Park, a University of Maryland professor of physics who in 1997 testified before Congress about NASA's research on behalf of the American Physical Society. [18]

"Building a $50 billion station to handle scientific experiments valued in only hundreds of millions of dollars is like insisting on a chauffeur-driven limousine to go to the corner store for milk." [19]

The shuttle is far more expensive and less reliable than expendible rockets, such as the Saturn 1B.

The Saturn 1B cost $3.4 billion to develop and $156 million per flight to operate.  It was able to lift about 40,000 pounds into orbit.  However, rather than continue to use the Saturn 1B, NASA spent ten times as much money to develop a vehicle that cost twice as much to perform the same job.  The Space Shuttle represents no great payload improvement over the Saturn 1B.  Like the Saturn, the Shuttle is able to lift 40,000 pounds into orbit.  Yet it cost $34.7 billion to develop and, by NASA's own rather low estimate, $301 million to operate, per flight. [20]

By another estimate, it costs approximately $340 million to launch a space shuttle. [21]

The space shuttle was built and maintained to please clashing constituencies, not to do a clearly defined job for which there was an economic and technical need.  The shuttle was to launch satellites for the Department of Defense and private contractors -- which could be done more cheaply by lightweight, disposable rockets.  It was to carry scientific experiments -- which could be done more efficiently by unmanned vehicles.  But one "need" came before all technical issues:  NASA's political need for showy manned vehicles. [22]

The space shuttle is a disaster, having led to the deaths of 14 astronauts.  It costs too much to use it to launch payloads into space, and over its more than 20 year life, it has been proven to be unreliable.  Cheaper, unmanned vehicles are more useful and reliable for putting payloads into orbit. [22a]

The space program was important to the US during the 1960's, if only to make it obvious to other countries that the US had enormous rockets which could accurately deliver a heavy payload (in particular, an atomic bomb) anywhere in the world.  In 1976, US military aircraft were using transistorized electronics while the Soviets were still using vacuum tubes. [23]

While the space program yielded many successes in years past, taxpayers are no longer getting their money's worth from a space program that focuses on repeating the deeds of yesterday.  But NASA's current priorities allow the scientifically and financially bankrupt $100 billion Space Station to absorb a larger and larger share of the NASA budget. [24]

Americans must come to the realization that the federal government does not have infinite amounts of money to spend.  In fact it has no money, other than the money it has taken out of your paycheck and mine!  The manned space program is an indirect way to buy votes, by associating the Space Shuttle with patriotic pride.  NASA's apparent goal is to make space flight look like a worthwhile endeavor, at least to the masses who don't give it much thought.

But it is not the proper role of government to take money from its citizens (through taxes, which are paid under the threat of imprisonment) and spend it on the pet projects of the politically powerful.

It is time to pull the plug on NASA and privatize — or just scrap — everything NASA does.  Then, if it is commercially attractive to fly to Mars, some corporation will undertake the project and reap the rewards.  But if such a project is just a bottomless money pit, capitalism and healthy skepticism will take over, and space exploration will return to the pages of science fiction.

There is no reason to spend billions of dollars on additional moon missions or on manned missions to Mars, just for the sake of busy work.  NASA has become an untouchable "sacred cow" that no politician dares to oppose.  But in reality, NASA represents pork barrel politics at its worst.

[Note A]:  This is according to the book "The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological Choice" by Howard McCurdy, professor of public affairs at American University in 1991. [*]

Additional material added after President Bush's speech:

President Bush made a speech at NASA headquarters on January 14, 2004, in which he proposed to send manned missions to the moon and to Mars.  In his speech, he tried to draw a parallel between the Lewis and Clark expedition and the space program, but failed to mention the cost of his mission to Mars.  (The Lewis and Clark expedition was a military mission that had an initial price tag of $2,500,* but ended up costing about $40,000.*)  Some experts have estimated the cost of the Mars mission at nearly a trillion dollars.  That is enough to make NASA's current $17 billion budget look like a pittance.

The Bush proposal has less to do with a vision of man's destiny than with a totally dysfunctional government agency.  NASA gave us the glory of Apollo, then spent the next three decades twirling around in space in low earth orbit studying zero-G nausea.  It's crazy and it might have gone on forever had it not been for the Columbia tragedy.  Columbia made painfully clear what some of us have been saying for years:  It is not only pointless to continue orbiting endlessly around the earth; it is ridiculously expensive and indefensibly risky. [25]

The landing of men on the moon in 1969 and a few subsequent years were the last really historic steps that NASA took, and the experiments recently devised by high-school students to occupy the time of astronauts in the space shuttles are little more than insults to the human intelligence. [26]

When Bush's father asked NASA in 1989 about a Mars mission, the agency shot back a total program cost of $400 billion.  That's $600 billion in today's money, and sounds about right as a Mars mission estimate.  This is assuming no pointless stopover at the Moon; add a Moon base and the price zooms toward $1 trillion!

Spirit, the rover that just landed [on Mars], weighs half a ton.  Spirit cost $410 million to build and place on Mars -- and it's about the size of a refrigerator, and does not come back.  Mars-mission proponents want to send something to the Red Planet the size of an office building, and bring it back. [27]

Missions to the moon were curtailed over thirty years ago largely because there is nothing of value on the moon, just a bunch of gray sand and rocks, and apparently nothing else to be learned by going there.  Even if the moon were made of uranium ore, it wouldn't be economically feasible to go there to look for "potential new sources of energy", as some have proposed.  In fact, it is ridiculous to go to a place so remote and start looking for something, without knowing if it's there.

There's nothing on the scientific radar that could be done on the Moon by people that couldn't be done at one percent of the expense, and without risk, by automated devices.  Note that in recent years, all the space programs of the world have shown little enthusiasm for sending even automated devices to the Moon, since there's little to do there other than pursue abstract knowledge of geology. [28]

Note that NASA has not so much as sent a robot probe to the Moon in 30 years, because as far as space-exploration advocates can tell, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, of value to do on the Moon.

In the days to come, any administration official who says that a Moon base could support a Mars mission is revealing himself or herself to be a total science illiterate.  When you hear, "A Moon base could support a Mars mission," substitute the words, "I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about." [29]

The exploration of Mars is something which should be left to private industry.  Perhaps some individual like Dick Rutan would find the mission to be a sound investment.  For the sake of the taxpayer, it's best to let capitalism, not tax-and-spend governments, decide if such a mission is worth the money.

Dr. Robert Zubrin has estimated that if the mission were done by more-efficient private industry [rather than the US government], it would cost only about $5 billion.  Other businessmen estimate that a private mission to Mars could probably be financed by raising $10 billion in revenue just from the sale of broadcast rights and advertising and promotion.

A private mission to Mars would cost taxpayers nothing.  Only those who expected to profit in some way, financially or otherwise, would invest their money and time.  If their investments failed, only they would suffer.  If they succeeded, the riches of Martian real estate, tourism, advertising, scientific experiments, and mining would be theirs. [30]

Neither the President nor supporters of this revamped NASA space program have come up with any real justification for continuing a multi-billion dollar boondoggle other than saying that it is our destiny to explore the solar system and beyond.  As that appears to be the only reason to continue funding NASA, taxpayers should demand that the whole program be abolished to reduce the federal budget deficit. [31]

News coverage of the Bush proposal typically included "man on the street" interviews in which ordinary citizens expressed concern about the cost.  Without exception (in the coverage I saw) everyone who objected to the Mars mission said the money should be spent on social programs instead.  I saw no one interviewed who objected to the spending or said they'd be better off with lower taxes and more money in their paychecks.

The Misconception of Space Research Byproducts:

When I suggest to people (at work) that NASA has run its course and should be shut down, the first argument I hear is always about the many byproducts of space research from which we all benefit.  Lists of such modern conveniences — allegedly spun off from NASA research — sometimes include microwave ovens and Tang, but they almost always include Teflon and Velcro.  Even U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who serves on the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, makes this assertion on her web site:

From satellites, which allow instant access to news and information around the globe, and cell phones, which forever changed the way we live, to everyday amenities such as cordless appliances, Velcro and Teflon — all were developed through our space program. *

That sounds good, but it isn't true.  Teflon was invented in 1938, and its first significant use was in the Manhattan Project.*  Velcro was invented by George de Mestral in 1948* and the Velcro brand was trademarked in the United States 50 years ago.*  The space program had nothing to do with either of them.  Someone who serves on the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee should know that.  Does the Senator really believe that cell phones are used in space?

Editor's note:
The quote above has been removed from the Senator's web site; however, while searching for it, I discovered this statement on her web site:

"Now, more than ever, we need NASA to be fully-funded, so that it can spur the new technologies that are so vital to our prosperity."*
That's like saying the government should buy everybody an automobile in order to promote oil exploration.  Apparently the Senator believes that science and technology is advanced only by NASA.

I'm not the only one who has noticed this sophistry, as you can read in these articles:

Spinning Spinoff:  Without NASA and Apollo, they contend, our nation wouldn't have been blessed with the bounty of microchips, or personal computers, or electro-encephalograms, or teflon, or Tang and freeze-dried ice cream, or camping refrigerators, or indoor plumbing, or sliced bread in the grocery store.  NASA itself uses this argument, and publishes a magazine titled (not coincidentally), Spinoff.  Many of these claims are hyperbolic.  Most of them are false.

A Brief History of the Microwave Oven.  In 1947, Raytheon demonstrated the world's first microwave oven and called it a "Radarange," the winning name in an employee contest.  Housed in refrigerator-sized cabinets, the first microwave ovens cost between $2,000 and $3,000.  Sometime between 1952-55, Tappan introduced the first home model priced at $1295. ... By 1975, sales of microwave ovens exceeded that of gas ranges.

Polytetrafluoroethylene was discovered on April 6, 1938.  PTFE was first marketed under the DuPont Teflon® trademark in 1945.  The molecular weight of Teflon can exceed 30,000,000, making it one of the largest molecules known.

Tang  was formulated by General Foods Corporation in 1957 and first marketed (in powdered form) in 1959.  It was initially intended as a breakfast drink, but sales were poor until NASA began using it on Gemini flights in 1965.

[Thus it was the popularity of Tang, and not the beverage itself, that resulted from NASA's need for it.]

What about Walkie Talkies?:  The first radio receiver/transmitter to be nick-named "Walkie-Talkie" was the backpacked Motorola SCR-300, created by an engineering team in 1940 at the Galvin Manufacturing Company (forerunner of Motorola).

Not even transistors?
NASA Reevaluated:  The transistor was invented at Bell Labs, independent of a space program, in 1947.

Did NASA invent cordless power tools?  No.  The first cordless power tool was unveiled by Black & Decker in 1961.  In the mid-1960s, Martin Marietta Corporation contracted with Black & Decker to design tools for NASA.  The tool company developed a zero-impact wrench for the Gemini project that spun bolts in zero gravity without spinning the astronaut.

Did NASA invent barcodes, quartz clocks, or smoke detectors?  Barcodes were not invented by NASA.  NASA developed a special type of barcode for inventory of space shuttle and other space system components that could endure harsh environments, but this should not be mistaken for the original barcode.  Similarly, NASA was not the first to use quartz as a piezoelectric material for timekeeping.  The first quartz clock dates back to 1927.

Other news and commentary, mainly about NASA's very expensive unmanned missions can be found on this page.

The section about NASA's mission to appease the Muslims has been moved to this page.

New:  The Top 10 NASA Contractors for Fiscal Year 2005, along with some other surprising sums of money awarded.  For example, $12,144,530 to the United Negro College Fund and $9,200,297 to the SETI Institute.  That's $9.2 million (per year!) spent on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Look at the numbers:  NASA's Budget Appropriations for 2007 and Projections for 2008 to 2012.

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Updated November 25, 2015.

©2015 by Andrew K. Dart