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The High Cost of Government Waste

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Many promising space exploration proposals have been abandoned over the years in the name of more pressing social priorities.

When presidential candidate Mitt Romney ridiculed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for favoring a mining colony on the moon during a recent presidential debate, he undoubtedly thought he was scoring political points.  But anyone watching who had ever thrilled to Stanley Kubrick’s thoughtful depiction of interplanetary travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey likely admired the Speaker’s spirited defense of his off-world agenda.

There are many ways to measure the cost of wasteful spending in the decades since the Apollo moon landings—the size of the current national budget deficit, surveys showing Americans’ growing mistrust of government, or the number of duplicative and inefficient federal programs.

Yet perhaps the most disheartening metric is the number of promising space exploration proposals that have been abandoned in the name of “more pressing social priorities.”

Only now, as the nation finally comes to terms with the very overspending that was supposedly being avoided, does the price of undisciplined domestic spending, combined with a failure of technological nerve, begin to become painfully clear. Polls by CBS News, America Online, Newsweek, and others have documented the public’s increasing disappointment and even anger over their country’s lack of progress in space, feelings that in retrospect are clearly justified.

Gingrich was so taken with Zubrin’s idea that he suggested an entrepreneurial twist of his own: offer a $20 billion award to the first private organization to land a crew on Mars.

Go back to 1989 when, in response to a call by the first President Bush for a plan to continue manned exploration beyond the moon landings, a team representing both NASA scientists and major aerospace contractors spent three months designing the “Report of the 90 Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars.”

The team’s recommendations included an orbiting facility three times as large as the current International Space Station, additional orbiting hangers and space docks, a moon base, a fleet of trans-lunar shuttles, and the construction of a new class of space ship for voyages to Mars and beyond.

The report never included an official budget, but a generally accepted estimate of $450 billion was leaked to the press and immediately derided as impossibly extravagant.

Proponents countered that the cost of the project was to be spread over 30 years, making for an average annual expenditure of $15 billion. But, perhaps because of political sensitivities, they stopped short of making their most persuasive argument: the price could probably have been covered, not with tax increases, but by trimming waste, fraud, and abuse elsewhere in the budget.

Indeed, it was just four years later when the first annual assessment of federal overspending by the Washington policy group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) documented just how true this was. By cutting just 10 percent of the estimated $170.4 billion in needless or redundant spending, President Bush’s visionary proposal could have been fully funded. As it was, the “Report of the 90 Day Study” died within months of its publication, ironically a victim of budget-cutting rhetoric.

To the credit of space advocates, the “Report of the 90 Day Study” was followed over the years by a series of more modest efforts, each attempting in its own way to chart an efficient course off the planet.

Government accomplishment in complex engineering stands in stark contrast to most everything else it attempts.

In 1994, for example, NASA agreed to take over management of the already constructed DC-X rocket, dubbed the “Delta Clipper,” from the Department of Defense’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Mimicking technology suggested by 1950s science fiction films, the DC-X had been built by McDonnell Douglas to both take off and land vertically, a feat that could eventually facilitate missions to lower gravity destinations, such as the moon and Mars.

During his first term, the second President Bush received initial congressional funding for another comprehensive space proposal, the Constellation program. Designed to create an extended human presence on the moon and to develop technologies for economically processing rocket fuel and breathable air from lunar soil, it called for construction of a 4-to-6 person reusable crew capsule, rockets built to optimize delivery of payloads to Earth orbit, and a lunar shuttle.

When announced to the public in 2004, NASA projected an expenditure of $230 billion over 20 years, or an average of $11.5 billion per year, to realize the program. To put this request in perspective, CAGW was now estimating the amount of waste in the federal budget at $217 billion for that one year alone—almost the entire two-decade cost of the project.

Bold but cost-effective ideas were also percolating outside NASA. In the early 1990s, Dr. Robert Zubrin, a former senior engineer at Lockheed Martin, had begun to develop a streamlined plan to colonize Mars that would involve carrying small payloads with existing technology, extracting methane fuel for return trips from Martian soil, and using other indigenous elements on the red planet to produce oxygen and construct settlements.

Calculating Zubrin’s project in today’s dollars, it would run $3 billion a year over ten years—or just over 1 percent of what the outgoing administrator of the national Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Dr. Donald M. Berwick, says Washington wastes annually on healthcare. Back in 1994, then-congressman Gingrich was so taken with Zubrin’s idea that he suggested an entrepreneurial twist of his own: have the federal government sponsor the plan indirectly by offering a $20 billion award to the first private organization to land a crew on Mars.

What could an ambitious space exploration program have done to help reverse the current decline in the quality of public education?

Sadly, none of these proposals were ever funded much beyond the start-up stage. In the end, targeting even the most promising and economically designed space missions became too convenient a way for many otherwise big-spending politicians to pose as budget cutters.

The DC-X flew twelve times before it was destroyed in a landing accident; and the Clinton administration, which saw it as a legacy of Republican administrations, was perhaps too quick to replace it with a project it could call its own, the X-33/VentureStar. Designed as the prototype for a reusable rocket able to reach orbit and return without the aid of external fuel tanks or boosters, it gambled too heavily on untested technologies and eventually had to be cancelled.

Continued funding for George W. Bush’s Constellation program was excluded from President Obama’s near-trillion dollar stimulus; and the program was abruptly terminated in 2010 without any proposed substitute, thus depriving the United States of the heavy lift boosters and crew capsules it needs to ever again travel beyond Earth’s orbit.

It is interesting to speculate on what life might be like today had earlier politicians actually possessed the economic foresight they claimed when striking down ambitious space initiatives.

We know, for example, that the moon’s crust contains helium3, a rare element here on Earth that can produce abundant energy without also producing radioactive waste. Could the problem of reducing hydrocarbon pollution of the atmosphere already have been solved by now, and for a fraction of expensive “cap and trade” proposals?

The price could probably have been covered, not with tax increases, but by trimming waste, fraud, and abuse elsewhere in the budget.

We also know that many other valuable minerals, including high quality nickel, cobalt, and platinum, exist in large quantities in asteroids and moons throughout the solar system—an incentive that undoubtedly contributed to the recent formation of SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, Blue Origin (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), and other fledgling space transportation companies. How much could we already have benefited from the deployment of a technology for retrieving such commodities?

And finally, we know that the Apollo effort to land the first men on the moon in the 1960s inspired a whole generation of young people to study astronomy, physics, engineering, and other scientifically related subjects. What could an ambitious space exploration program have done to help reverse the current decline in the quality of public education?

Now, some might naturally ask, “If Washington is so incompetent as to waste $391.9 billion in the current fiscal year (again according to CAGW), did NASA ever have the ability to realize any of the abandoned space proposals?” An understandable reservation; yet history shows that, if government is capable of achieving anything, it is a difficult, well-defined technical goal requiring the coordination of top-flight scientific talent.

From the days of the Erie Canal down through the Hoover Dam, the Manhattan Project, and the Apollo moon program itself, government accomplishment in complex engineering stands in stark contrast to most everything else it attempts. Even the Soviet Union managed to build a credible space program—so successfully, in fact, that we now rely on Russian rockets to supply the International Space Station.

Whatever mistakes NASA might have made on its way to the stars, we certainly would have ended up with a far more interesting space program than the one we have today, which is to say practically no program at all.

Many other valuable minerals, including high quality nickel, cobalt, and platinum, exist in large quantities in asteroids and moons throughout the solar system.

The Office of Management and the Budget has zeroed funding for future Mars probes. After the recently launched Mars science lab Curiosity and the MAVEN orbiter, set for departure in 2013, America’s half-century of planetary exploration, which began with the Mariner probes, will come to an abrupt end.

America’s astronomy program is also in jeopardy. The orbiting Kepler space observatory is scheduled for shutdown before it can complete its search for Earth-like planets; and plans for the Terrestrial Planet Finder, a successor powerful enough to find and study worlds 100 light years away, have been abandoned. NASA still hopes to orbit the James Webb Space Telescope, a replacement for the Hubble, in 2018, but the budget does not allow for a retractable shade to make viewing distant planets possible.

And while it is to be hoped that rockets built by private companies like SpaceX will be able to supply the International Space Station, President Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program means that the American government has effectively terminated its once admired manned space program.

Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine any scenario—save perhaps China making unexpected progress in its own desire to mine helium3—under which the current administration might reverse course. Certainly, there will be no assist from President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, who once called the United States an “overdeveloped country” badly in need of de-industrialization.

Small wonder Americans feel their country is in decline. If a wistful appreciation for the once-promising space future that never materialized teaches us anything, it is the folly of trusting big-spending politicians to tell us what is affordable—and what is not.

Lewis M. Andrews is the senior policy analyst at the Yankee Institute in Hartford, Connecticut.

FURTHER READING: Andrews also writes “Religious Alternatives to the Public Sector.” Daniel Akst discusses “Science and the Chattering Classes.” Andrew G. Biggs examines “How Much Does the Federal Government Really Spend?” Michael Auslin contributes “The Final Frontier.” Arthur Herman says “Goodbye, Atlantis.”

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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