Eyes on the heavens, President Bush called last month for a multi-billion dollar increase in federal funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, with the goal of a manned facility on the moon within the next two decades and a manned excursion to Mars by 2030. Given the tepid public response (an AP poll showed that half of the American public supports Bushís plan, while another half opposes it), itís little surprise that space exploration has dropped off the radar, to the extent that the new plan for NASA was not mentioned once in the Presidentís State of the Union address a week after the space plan was announced.
Popular or not, continued federal funding of an organization like NASA is as unconscionable as it is unconstitutional. Announcing that the federal bureaucracy is taking responsibility for a project this enormous is a sure-fire way to ensure that itíll be completed (if even that) horribly past its deadline, grossly over budget, and laughably short of its intended specifications. In fact, all three of these things happened the last time an ambitious space project was announced, that being the International Space Station. We were told that it would cost a mere $8 billion, house a dozen crew members, and be completed by the mid-nineties. The orbital money pit that is the ISS now runs a tab of over $100 billion, is projected to house only three astronauts, and has yet to be finished. The same government responsible for the tradition of excellence that is the U.S. Postal Service now wants to hurl even more money at the sky.
In fact, the USPS serves as a useful illustration to point out how government-imposed monopolies hamper progress and economic growth like a wet blanket. The Postal Service enjoys freedom from all taxes, a monopoly on first- and third-class mail delivery and exemption from all manner of zoning and transportation regulations, all while retaining its own regulatory authority, which it frequently invokes against its erstwhile competitors. Edward Hudgins at the Cato Institute notes that over the past three decades, productivity at the USPS has increased by twelve percent. Not a bad figure--until itís compared with the comparatively staggering fifty-five percent increase in productivity that all businesses managed over the same period. Whatís worse, of course, is that over the past thirty years postage prices have gone nowhere but up, in fact increasing fourfold, even when inflation is taken into account. In that same time, the price of a long-distance phone call has fallen ninety percent, in a largely private industry with infrastructure needs similar to that of mail delivery. In short, despite its massive regulatory advantages over private industry, the Postal Service, shielded from competition, is nothing but a massive failure that costs Americans billions a year, and not just in taxes.
Of course, the aforementioned cellular phones make ample use of satellites, which somehow have gotten into space without the help of NASA. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy calling home without it costing an arm and a leg, NASA does not have a legal monopoly on unmanned space flight. Unfortunately for those of us who would like to see economically sustainable human exploration and habitation of space, NASA does enjoy a monopoly on manned space flight that effectively kills private attempts to do the same. Enormous markets in space exploration, tourism, transportation, and habitation are practically closed off to the American public, because the sum of American endeavors in manned space flight consists in one plodding, practically irrelevant science experiment done every couple of months. Space flight is very dangerous business. It remains so because it is closed to private industry--it has no more inherent dangers than seafaring or air travel. The essence of the problem is that no one actually knows how to provide inexpensive, safe, and effective space flight.
In competitive industries, from computing to hospitality, dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individual firms each supply their own answers to the question of how to best supply the particular service demanded. Frequently, they attempt to answer economic questions that no one thought to raise previously--Internet companies do this all the time. Of course, like a lot of dot-coms, private companies also die. Unsurprisingly, the ones who are not very good at what they do are the ones who tend to die. The strongest survivors are the ones who set the standards for the industry--at least for the time being--while the remaining survivors will adopt their competitorsí practices. What makes competition essential is that itís impossible to accurately predict which practices will succeed. A multiplicity of solutions are offered by as many competitors, and the few that work better prosper. The survivors provide better and/or cheaper goods and services that didnít exist before.
When an industry is dominated by a public monopoly, the government allows only one solution to the question at hand (How ought mail be delivered? How can we can get men out in space safely?), the success of which is gauged by politics, not economics. Whatís worse, risk is not assumed by private investors who are directly interested in the success of their venture, but instead assumed by the American taxpaying public at large.
Of course, not every argument in favor of continued funding for NASA is one of effectiveness. Certainly, further missions to the moon and a Mars landing have great symbolic and inspirational value to Americans. The problem lies with the idea that if NASA isnít the institution that puts men on the moon, then America has failed. Itís always frustrating to see otherwise clear-headed conservatives tear up at the mention of the American space program, and announce that we must not only go into space, but that it must be the federal government that takes us there.
NASAís monopoly on manned space flight is putting the breaks on progress. The ideal solution to this problem would be a renunciation of his monopoly followed by the absorption of NASA into the Department of Defense as a bureau to support space defense research. Perhaps the recent flop of the new federal space exploration proposals will encourage President Bush to do just that, but we space enthusiasts arenít holding our breath.
Jonathan Berry is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.