Earlier today, a friend from high school suggested on Facebook that the United States should suspend operations at NASA and use that money to pay off the national deficit. Even though it was early in the morning and I had a lot of reading to do, I felt compelled to respond to this intriguing proposal. The following is an expanded version of what I wrote on FB, because the Wall feature on FB limits how many words you may type in response to a post.
There are a few problems with “suspending” NASA.
First, NASA’s budget is only about 0.7% of the total federal budget, and it would amount to only 0.016% of the 2009 annual deficit. Such a small portion of the national governmental spending wouldn’t go very far toward paying off the deficit. Additionally, there is a difference between the accumulated national debt and the deficit. Each fiscal year there may be a deficit (when spending exceeds budgeted allocations), and each deficit adds to the cumulative debt of the US. The national debt exceeds the current deficit by a factor of 11, which further minimizes the effectiveness of using NASA’s miniscule budget to pay off the outstanding debt of the nation.
Second, NASA supports a large industry of skilled workers. Suspending operations would put all of those folks out of work, and their ability to find new employment in the US at this time would be very difficult. This would not be so good for the US in terms of maintaining employment of higher waged, skilled workers and avoiding “brain drain.”
Third, it’s actually good to run a deficit when GDP is down, because it can help stimulate the economy. When things get better, we can start tackling the deficit. However, we may want to look at those parts of the budget that are large enough (e.g., military spending in its various guises) to make a real difference with restructuring and reductions in spending.
And finally, the historical imperative of expansion into the frontier is something that is now embedded in the American cultural imagination. I do not believe that we can simply pull the plug on the one non-abstract way of defining who we are by where we go. We must stop blasting our way with weapons into other peoples’ countries. Furthermore, it is difficult for folks to get excited about our adventures in the “frontiers of medicine” or the “frontiers of computing” in the same way that watching millions of pounds of technological marvel lift itself into the heavenly frontier. There is something righteous about the human desire to fly ever higher, and that feeling is now strongly connected to what it means to be American following Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and all the rest.
I, like many others including Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Hawking, feel that outer space is our only chance as a species. Furthermore, I do believe that we, meaning humanity, should work together toward the (hopeful) diaspora of humanity into the cosmos. Life on one planet is dangerous for us as a species (the fossil record speaks for that), and our current (and America is the worst abuser of this) rate of consumption of non-replenishable natural resources means that we will eventually use up all of the materials that give us our material comforts we currently enjoy.
Obviously, the United States cannot venture far into the Universe alone. It will be a project that requires all of humanity to accomplish, and it would only be equitable if all peoples are given the opportunity to take part in what I believe to be the most important adventure at this stage in human history. The Apollo-Soyuz project and the International Space Station (which replaced Reagan’s isolationist Freedom Space Station) demonstrate that the exploration and habitation of the Universe is something that can bring nations together for an enterprise far more important and meaningful than each contributing member nation. For these reasons, I believe that we should commit ourselves to investing more in the public exploration of space while providing awards or incentives to private businesses to also make use of the vast cosmos beyond our atmospheric borders. Eventually, we must leave the cradle and venture forth into the wider “world,” and that “world” is a seemingly endless expanse of stars, planets, and other phenomena that hold unparalleled possibilities and hope for humanity.