Thursday, February 27, 2003

Space Exploration Belongs in Private Hands
By Alexander Marriott
UNLV Rebel Yell: February 10, 2003

The tragedy of the Space Shuttle Columbia shocked the nation that had forgotten about its space explorers, whom it sends into space to conduct science experiments at the average cost of half a billion dollars per trip. The shuttle program has now lost two of its six vehicles in spectacular accidents and thirteen brave Americans, as well as one Israeli national hero.

NASA, as far as government organizations go, has been surprisingly successful, actually achieving its initial goal (landing on the moon). But after that great success the organization has been aimless, consisting of a reusable shuttle program which has cost more in terms of lives and money than the system it replaced ever came close to. Also, its initial mission was a branching off of national defense. Landing on the moon was a way to win a victory in a Cold War against a regime that thought it could beat the United States in a battle of technological brawn and industrial might.

The goal of landing on and returning from the moon though has been completed and there is no longer a legitimate national defense issue regarding its existence, except of course for spy satellites, but the Air Force or Army could easily take over that task without the existence of another bureaucracy.

This is not to say space exploration isn't important, on the contrary, it's far too important to let the government screw it up. I think the X Prize is a good example of the maximum amount of government interference there ought to be in science. The X Prize is a ten million dollar privately funded prize being offered to the first person or persons who can successfully launch a privately built rocket with two people into orbit twice. If the government doesn't want to refund the fifteen billion dollar budget of NASA to the taxpayers then it should offer up fifty or so X Prizes for different scientific endeavors. That would be a thirty million dollar incentive to achieve any given goal, a fraction of the cost it takes the government to do simple lab experiments in space and get brave astronauts killed.

But the country is reacting under the impression that with more money NASA won't screw up, just like the other government agencies that get more money and don't screw up (i.e. Department of Education and the Postal Service.) Instead of subsidizing failure and waste we should be keeping our money to invest in the scientific endeavors we personally and specifically, as individuals, want to be developed.

The tragedy of the Columbia is unbelievably sad, but we don't honor the memory of anyone involved by continuing to expropriate money only to see another heartrending tragedy a decade from now. I personally don't want to pay for NASA and the dissent of one person is all that is needed to invalidate NASA's claim that what they are doing is for everyone. NASA employees should stop thinking as government employees for once and think as scientists. If they do that then they'll realize that the private sector is the place to advance science and the only moral way to do so, as the money they use will be voluntarily given rather than stolen from people.

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