Friday, April 27, 2012



Today, those of us who were anywhere near a television news program witnessed the space shuttle Enterprise, on its common perch on the back of a NASA 747, doing a fly-by in New York City on its way to its permanent home on the U.S.S. Intrepid Museum in the Hudson River. The crowds on the ground cheered, and even I have to admit that it was an impressive sight.

But one has to ask: For what were the crowds cheering? I know what I would be cheering for, and I hope, and suspect, that many in the crowd were cheering for the same thing, i.e., that the shuttle program, which for decades almost literally burned taxpayer money, is finally, mercifully dead. What more perfect metaphor can there be for the wastefulness of government than this space jalopy, a veritable showcase of ‘60s and ‘70s technology, incinerating billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars to do the same thing over and over again with few discernible results? How many times did we need to hundreds of millions to watch a bunch of guys floating around and waving at the cameras while taking a break from doing some eight grader’s science project?  Okay, maybe some of the experiments conducted on the shuttle are meritorious, but couldn’t they be done on earth much more cheaply and just, or nearly, as effectively?  We’ve been orbiting the planet for more than 50 years now; what else is there to do on these repetitious and redundant missions?  What else is there to see on these familiar orbital exercises in fulsome and feckless fiscal foppery? Couldn’t that money be better spent elsewhere, perhaps in more productive, and cheaper, unmanned deep space probes or simply keeping the money in the taxpayers’ pockets? Well, yes, but then the aerospace contractors who do so much to finance our politicians’ lifelong exercise in self-aggrandizement would not have quite as big a place at the government trough.

One hears several counters to this anti-shuttle argument that transcend the familiar “Why do you hate America?” line of reasoning one encounters when one suggests forgoing yet another senseless bacchanal on the taxpayers’ dimes in favor of returning to the spirit and intentions of our founding fathers. Some will ask where my sense of adventure is. Admittedly, at my age, I am not one who craves much adventure. But I have to ask even those who go for that sort of thing how much adventure there is in circling the earth over and over and over again. Wouldn’t it be more adventurous, indeed isn’t it more adventurous, to go into deep space and learn about the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond? Indeed, we can do that, and are doing that, much more cheaply than these increasingly banausic shuttle missions that did little, if anything, to stretch man’s imagination. But don’t we need to have people aboard our space shots in order for us to truly indulge our sense of adventure? The best answer to that question is another question: Why? But let’s suppose we do need people aboard to make it, I suppose, fun or adventurous or something like that. We have several private groups, including James Cameron and a few of his billionaire pals, who want to finance manned missions to the asteroids in order to mine gold at a cost of brazillions per ounce. If they want to fritter away their dough indulging their sense of adventure, more power to them, unless, of course, this is some kind of feint to secure their own place at the federal trough. These private groups will doubtless spend their own money more wisely, and productively, than NASA would spend yours, admittedly a pretty low bar. Why do we need to blow my, and your, money on such indulgences?

Second, people will point to all the technological advances, like, say, Velcro, that came about as by-products of the space program. Certainly Velcro, and perhaps many less mundane by-products of space exploration, is useful, but do the words “cost-benefit analysis” have any meaning any more? Was it worth the billions we have blown on the shuttle program to get Velcro and anything else the shuttle program has produced beyond silly news footage? Couldn’t all this stuff have been produced more cheaply? That is a completely rhetorical question.

Third, some will argue that, in the great scheme of things, the space shuttle program didn’t cost that much. What’s another billion and a half or so per flight in the context of a $3.6 trillion federal budget? The immediate answer is a lot of money, but even if we have become so inured to brobdingnagian levels of federal spending that a few billion doesn’t sound like a lot of money, the “drop in the ocean” argument says a lot more about the overall level of federal spending than it does about the relative pittance it has made of one of its very expensive components. Further, I would remind those who dismiss saving a little money because doing so does not save a lot money that those who are millionaires did not get that way because a million dollars dropped into their lap, or even because they busted their hindquarters and earned a million dollars all at once; great sums of money are accumulated by saving small sums of money. And great savings are achieved by myriad repetitions of small savings. The “It only costs (insert amount that those who want to spend it consider small, especially if it’s not their money), so why not go ahead and spend it?” argument gets very self-indicting, and very expensive, very quickly.

So yes, cheer for the space shuttle…cheer that one of the most salient examples of wasteful, pointless government spending has finally stopped doing its part to impoverish our country.

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