What About NASA?

March 6, 2009

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The name itself evokes everything of the late 1950’s – good and bad. The New American Optimism in the wake of the World Wars and the dawn of the nuclear age, but also the nightmarish visions of the future captured in Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The human audacity and ambition to adventure among the stars – indeed, even to so completely overcome the challenges of the void as to reduce it to a mere administrative district. It is a powerful image, both as a symbol of humanity’s unlimited optimism, and of our unlimited hubris. In this era of global warming and financial crisis, can we be expected to support such a seemingly misguided organization?

After all, NASA has a budget in excess of $17bn a year. For reference, that’s about two and a half times the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, and would put NASA right around the 100th largest GDP in the world, if it were its own country.

What would happen if, instead of donating a small country worth of resources to space exploration – which we’re not doing very effectively, anyway – we poured all of that money into, say, ending world hunger. The world food programme recieves less than $3bn a year in donations from governments and private donors towards its ultimate mission of eradicating world hunger. Imagine what would happen if $3bn was increased to $20bn. The objective of “eliminating world food shortages and malnutrition by 2015” would drop to 2010. It would, in effect, solve the problem instantly. Then there’s global warming – a much more ambiguous and amorphous project, and one with so many private and public research initiatives working on it that it is hard to estimate current funding. Needless to say, though, if the U.S. government were to abandon the massive and damaging fuel expenditures of regular space missions – to the international space station, say – it would be a great symbolic gesture in support of conscientious fuel-use reduction.

That said, NASA is a prominent and positive force in the world. Even if it no longer inspires quite so many children to pursue engineering, physics and mathematics, or to dream of being an astronaut, its continued existence is a testament to human ambition, ingenuity and willpower; and despite the massive failures of the space shuttle explosions and the crisis-upon-crisis of the International Space Station, NASA continues to produce useful spin-off products across everything from Food – improved nutrition in baby food – to emergency and medical equipment – memory foam and untold fire-fighting innovations – to (perhaps most obviously) transportation – stronger tires and better aircraft. These may be small contributions in the face of an end to world hunger, but then, I’m a wealthy future scientist, and I’m not one to look a gift horse – or future employer – in the mouth.

So, what do you think? What should we do about NASA? Are the tangible benefits of continued research in Astrophysics and engineering, and the intangible benefits in terms of national and international pride, worth the costs? Or should we scrap the whole thing?

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