A Moonbase? A MOONBASE?

Can anyone come up with a single thing to say in defense of the Bush plan? It looks to me like Jimmy Dean politics: pure pork. Bush wants to “go back to being a uniter, not a divider” (How can he “go back” to where he never was?) by enriching his home state and the aerospace contractors at the expense of the rest of us. Right.

And apparently in addition to wasting tons of additional money the Federal government doesn’t have on the project, NASA is going to have to get rid of all the actual science it does to help pay for it. (The dollar hit another new low against the Euro today, suggesting that people with their own money on the table aren’t as blase as Bush’s economic yes-men about deficits stretching as far as the eye can see.)

Of course Bush is grateful to the space program: What would he do without his precious Teflon coating? And obviously he can’t afford to be cut off from his supply of ideas that obviously came from anther planet.

But this is even more disgusting than usual. If you’re going to let your scientifically illiterate political advisor staff a huge science- policy decision, you should at least have the common decency to lie about it.

What’s even more depressing is that none of the alleged conservatives and libertarians who support Bush are going to get off the train for this, or for anything else he does.

Update Gregg Easterbrook provides the technical argument. For contrast, the New York Times finds some folks who like the idea, but no one explains how, exactly, it’s supposed to work or what it’s going to cost.

One valid point made in the Times article, and by one of my correspondents: At least this means killing the shuttle and the space station, two colossal losers.

For the record: I’m not against space-exploration. If someone proposed adding $50 billion a year to the NASA budget, and raise taxes to cover the cost, my immediate reaction wouldn’t be shocked horror. That’s 0.5% of GDP. We can afford it if we want it. (Of course, it would be nice if the rest of OECD put up some of the money.)


1. The country can afford it, but at current tax rates the federal government can’t. We’ve got deficits stretching as far as the eye can see. For Bush to call for a huge optional expenditure and say nothing about how to pay for it, when it’s his tax cuts that made it unaffordable, is pretty outrageous. (This would be an excellent story on which to use a Nedra Pickler lead: “President Bush, who has promised spending restraint to close the budget gap created by his tax cuts, today proposed…”)

2. Dollar-for-dollar, unmanned space exploration looks to be a better deal than manned space exploration. I’d much rather spend money on a new round of space telescopes, earth observation, and unmanned planetary missions such like the current Mars mission.

3. If we’re looking for new habitat, which seems to be the idea that gets the true space bugs really excited, why isn’t the seabed a better bet than, e.g., Mars?

4. If we have an extra $50 billion, or whatever it is, to spend on R & D, isn’t it obvious that the NSF is the first place we ought to put some of it? Right now, the total NSF budget — covering all of the natural and social sciences — is under $5 billion. NASA gets three times as much, and NIH five times as much. Some of that NIH money winds up paying for basic life-sciences research, but basic science is really starved compared to rocketry and biomedicine.

What would an extra billion dollars’ a year worth of cognitive neuroscience buy? Or materials science? Or basic computer science? Or basic oceanography (as opposed to seabed exploration)? Or climatology? Or what would a few tens of millions do for behavioral economics or evolutionary psychology or psychometrics or computational lingustics?

On the more applied side, nanotechnology looks ripe for spending some real money. Historically, advances in what’s now called materials science have been as important as advances in transportaton and communications in pushing the standard of living forward.

There’s a lot of stuff worth knowing, and worth learning how to do, that we could buy ourselves for much less money than a moonbase would cost. I understand why the Republicans would rather feed the aerospace manufacturers, plus Texas and Southern Florida, than the universities. But that doesn’t make it good policy.

5. Is it really impossible to spend big R&D money to reduce the economic and environmental costs of energy production? I know the energy R&D effort in the Ford-Carter years was a sorry boondoggle, but it’s not obvious that energy R&D is by its nature any more wasteful than manned space exploration. Finding a technology that would put a $15/barrel-of-oil-equivalent cap on the price of energy doesn’t sound any harder than colonizing Mars, and the payoffs would be enormous.

Don’t you find it astonishing how people who say they’re concerned about government spending don’t object to wars, occupations, and huge engineering boondoggles? Some time I’d like to hear one of the libertarian space-hounds explain to me slowly why space exploration should be funded by coercive taxation rather than private enterprise plus voluntary contributions. It’s not that I don’t know the answer to that question, but I don’t see how that answer is consistent with hostility to government in general.

Glen Whitman objects that most libertarians — all true libertarians, I think he would say — oppose government-sponsored spaceflight as well as regulation of private spaceflight. He notes Glenn Reynolds as the obvious exception. I think Glen Whitman underestimates the overlap between Ayn Rand fans and science-fiction fans, and therefore how many people who call themselves libertarian agree with Glenn Reynolds on this point.

All I want to know is how the libertarians are going to vote this year. If it’s for Bush, then I will doubt Glen’s assertion about ideological consistency.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

2 thoughts on “A Moonbase? A MOONBASE?”

  1. Moonbase Alpha

    Advanced word of the administration's plan to refocus the space program on settling the Moon and Mars (see also here and here) has provoked widespread comment in the blogosphere and beyond. Good posts by Chad Orzel (here and here), Greg…

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