The NASA Metaphor

   Many know that wounded Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s husband is an astronaut, but few seem to care that the last American space shuttle mission launched on July 8.  

    I’ve got an economist-type problem: On the one hand I enrolled at the USAF Academy in 1962 intending to learn to design spacecraft, in part in response to the Sputnik launch in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 initial space flight. (Calculus 221 intervened.) On the other hand I believe that extreme measures are needed to close our $1.5 trillion budget deficit. We face tough choices.

    A few factoids:

        –  The FY 2011 budget for NASA is $18.45 billion, compared to $14.3 billion a decade earlier.  In inflation-adjusted dollars the budget has stayed at around that level since 1962, with the exception of the mid 60s when it doubled at the peak of the moon effort.  President Obama’s budget framework foresees expenditures remaining at about this level for the next five years. The agency has plenty of powerful political, public, and business advocates.  

        –   While there is no plan for any further moon landings (the first of the six was in 1969; the last in 1972) or American shuttle flights to the International Space Station, NASA’s strategies call for continued active scientific use of the US built and Russian-serviced station, early developmental work on capabilities to explore further out into the solar system, and private enterprise options for low earth orbit missions.  President Bush had planned to use the savings from ending the Space Shuttle program to extend the life of the station and to return to the moon in a larger way in 2020; President Obama cancelled the moon program in what former astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Eugene Cernan call “a long downhill slide to mediocrity.”

        –  In one way or another NASA has given us things that don’t matter to most people (a close analysis of the composition of our neighboring planets; a look into origins of the universe), a lot of things that do (global positioning satellites; weather forecasting, telecommunications, medical, and transportation breakthroughs), and a sense of national pride.

    And the melancholy:

        –  In the long sweep of history the first steps of Neil Armstrong on the moon on July 20,1969, will be the most important event in a century or perhaps a millennium. My wife and I happened to be in downtown Montreal where euphoria reigned.  It will be generations, if ever, before a similar uplifting experience is available to the grand-kids of our grand-kids.

        –  The space program, instigated by the shocking Russian successes and responding to President Kennedy’s commitment and inspiration vividly demonstrated the best aspects of America in an era where we were preeminent in virtually every field.

        –  On a personal note I went to school with Fred Gregory, the first African American astronaut and a deputy administrator of NASA.  Fred’s journey mirrored the nation’s.

    So, the American space program is now a large stable bureaucracy with no clear (or at least interesting) objectives. We rely on the Russians for transportation to the International Space Station.  The Chinese, with whom Congress has prohibited space cooperation, have plans to start assembling their own space station this year, launch a lunar probe in 2013, and put a man on the moon some time after 2020. Those who favor government 5 year plans over free market capitalism applaud.  Some wonder why we are spending our money on fast trains to nowhere.


    On an optimistic note, this week’s video is classic Ronald Reagan – explaining his principles and American exceptionalism.   His slogan “Yes We Can” related to much more than winning elections.