16 January 2004
- General (Bad)
New US Space Policy a Damp Squib
NASA’s economic madness continues
by Patrick Collins
By Dr. Patrick Collins

After extensive advance leaking, US President Bush announced his plan to focus government-funded civilian space activities on a return to the Moon as a starting-point for going to Mars. Funding is supposed to come from increasing NASA’s budget by 5%/year and savings from cutting other projects. However, reports that politicians from districts that are home to these ill-fated projects are already preparing their defence suggests that any movement to realise the plan may be slow.

The plan apparently accepts - realistically - that the nearly 50-year old “Soyuz” rocket is de facto the gateway for travel to space - that is, the safest and cheapest vehicle for getting to orbit. Unfortunately the media have never acknowledged how astounding this simple fact is, though it was demonstrated clearly by Dennis Tito’s historic flight in 2001. Since 1961, after Yuri Gagarin beat the United States into space, the US government has spent US$1 TRILLION on space activities - but has not reduced the cost of getting into space by a single cent. Think about it. Surely that alone is a monstrous betrayal of American taxpayers.

But this madness doesn’t stop in the new proposal - quite the opposite. Many people were surprised to learn that the entire plan would continue to use expendable launch vehicles carrying re-developed Apollo-type capsules. Readers need to understand the truly mind-numbing implications of this: The US government’s new goal, by developing a new generation of Apollo capsules (at a cost estimated at $14 billion or more), would create a vehicle which, more than 50 years after Gagarin’s flight, would have costs to get to orbit fully 10 times higher than Gagarin’s vehicle!!!!

This is government waste on the truly epic scale; economic madness so spectacular that its like is only seen every few generations. It would put most other government waste far into the shade. Indeed it’s scarcely believable. To waste $1 trillion, and over half a century, in achieving negative progress on such a spectacular scale would truly stretch the outer limits of folly - and fantasy, since it would deny the very existence of the accelerating technological revolution we’ve been living through since 1961. What could its advocates be thinking of?

Sadly, just money. The people who will get to spend all the money, and the politicians who preside over the budget, care not a single jot for whether it benefits taxpayers. The idea doesn’t even come into consideration. “Can they get it through Congress?” is the only thought in their heads. Vested interests dare to make such an insanely awful proposal, at a time when the US government’s spending of taxpayers’ money on unprofitable activities has already led to record levels of debt and unemployment. They are either geniuses at exploiting public ignorance for their own self-interest – or they may have finally overstepped the limits of what people will accept, and their proposal will be the straw that breaks the poor, over-burdened camel's back.

There is some hope of the latter: Polls quickly showed that most US taxpayers were unimpressed. Groaning under already gargantuan government deficits, they’re not interested in paying even more than the $15 billion/year they already pay to watch a few astronauts visit low Earth orbit*, even if this could send them a bit further away from Earth. And the start of sub-orbital passenger flights in the near future will wake them up to the fact that there is another way. However, it’s far from clear that that will be sufficient to improve things: Opinions about space have so little influence in national politics that this plan could still run. The consolation would be that it might just leave private companies in peace to get on with developing tourism. But it could as easily create further political antagonism to those who try to create a viable space tourism business for less money.

But the whole plan is still so vague that more-or-less anything is possible – except that it will NOT, in any way, make it easier for US taxpayers to travel to space. And in order to achieve economic benefits from space development that is the only goal that matters: The rest can be left to the American people. But that's the last thing that the controllers of America’s Cold War-style, government monopoly “space programme” are interested in.
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Patrick Collins 16 January 2004
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