All Commentary
Tuesday, February 6, 2018

NASA Shouldn’t Be Funded by the Government

There's nothing inherently wrong with space exploration and study. Why can't we fund it voluntarily?

There are a number of ways to spend a $19.3 billion annual budget; we could pay for 1.94 million young adults in the United States to attend a public 4-year university, we could provide 1.87 million people with health care, or we could use the money to fund the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for one year.

Currently, our opinion doesn’t matter when it comes to which option we would rather have the government spend our money on. The entire country could be in favor of the government providing healthcare for one year, but the decision would still be made by a few bureaucrats sitting comfortably in their opulent headquarters on Capitol Hill. If the idea of someone stealing your money and disregarding your opinion about what it’s used for doesn’t bother you, please let me know and I will gladly start collecting a portion of your paycheck!

In 2020, NASA is planning to spend $2.4 billion on a trek to Mars so that they can collect samples of the environment to hopefully answer questions about its potential for life. If you’re thinking that this $2.4 billion price tag includes the retrieval of said samples, you’re unfortunately mistaken. The current plan is to leave the samples in space until they find the time and money to come up with another plan to retrieve them; this could mean several years — even decades — before they decide to even think about the retrieval process.

Who decided that knowledge, exclusively for the sake of learning, takes precedence? Unintended Consequences

Not only is this project expensive, it also comes with various risks; samples could contaminate our planet and cause unknown reactions, another country could plan a faster retrieval, or the mission could go on indefinitely. The risk that terrifies me most is that these samples have the potential to alter the ecosystem on Earth in ways that we cannot possibly predict; is there a waiver for my life hidden somewhere in the social “contract?” Who decided that knowledge, exclusively for the sake of learning, takes precedence?

And if the mission did go sideways, it wouldn’t be possible (or even rational) to punish the ones responsible because when you file a lawsuit against the government, it’s your own money that pays for their lawyers. In 2016 alone, the government spent $36.2 million of our money in legal costs battling lawsuits to protect themselves.

Opportunity Costs

Stealing money from individuals isn’t the only way to fund humanitarian efforts that we deem valuable. Of course, NASA has provided benefits beyond knowledge. Their discoveries range from the artificial heart pump (LVAD), modeled after the engine fuel pump of their space shuttle, to the protective coating that preserves the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge. My intent is not to belittle the importance of these discoveries, but to introduce the basic economic idea of opportunity costs. Perhaps we would all be better off if these scarce resources were allocated elsewhere? After all, most of these inventions were simply inspired by NASA’s technology, not specifically produced by NASA.

Even if their $2.4 billion mission to Mars is a complete success, is the supplemental knowledge of a distant planet worth more than what we could do to help the living, breathing lives on our own? Stealing money from individuals and giving it to programs like NASA isn’t the only way to fund humanitarian efforts that we deem valuable; various organizations that benefit our society are funded through private and voluntary donations.

For example, the Walmart Foundation alone donated $1.42 billion in 2016 and over $30 million towards Hurricane Harvey victims, and Best Friends Animal Society saved around 200,000 animals in 2016. Not only are these organizations providing valuable services, they use the money they’re given more efficiently than the government, empowering an individual to contribute more with less money.

Criticisms of Privately-Produced Space Research

  • A common argument against relying on voluntary donations is whether anyone would donate towards the cause. The answer is quite simple; if few people decide to donate to an organization, then one must question what it’s worth to society. Why force people to fund something they see no value in?
  • Another common argument is: “NASA benefits society, therefore we must fund it so that our society will prosper!” If that were the guideline for determining government funding, then our houses, cars, food, and everything else we own should also be paid for by the government. But when the government controls things like food production, people starve to death. Again, the opportunity costs deserve consideration. How much money could we save if NASA was funded privately? And what additional benefits could we obtain with those savings?
  • The strongest economic argument is that NASA research may be a public good. After all, it would be highly costly to prevent non-payers from benefiting from the information provided by the research. The argument is that a free-rider problem would arise and that no one would voluntarily pay for the product. If that logic were valid, we would certainly need the government to force us to pay for other sources of information too. Yet without coerced funding, we still have plenty of books. And thousands of blogs exist even though people are being paid nothing at all for producing them. Further, even when we have a true public good like the radio, the free market figures out how to fund the service without coercion. Advertisements were used in the case of the radio. And now with satellite radio services, the market has figured out how to exclude non-payers and therefore solve their free-rider problem altogether.

Whether NASA is funded at all should be entirely up to the individuals in our country. Not bureaucrats.