Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NASA should stop making rockets

A colleague of mine at work sent me a link today about an astronaut losing a tool bag in space during a space walk to work on the international space station. That seems as good a lede

as any to introduce a thought I've had for a while: NASA needs to be gutted.

Now, I like scientific research as much as the next guy — probably more than the typical next guy, actually. And despite my general preference for a small federal government, I do think the federal government needs to play a major part in funding science. Some of the most interesting and useful things we enjoy in the modern world have their origins in pure scientific research, and that's the kind of research that individuals and private companies have the least to gain from in terms of ROI.

My problem with NASA isn't that the government is spending so much money on research, it's that we're getting virtually nothing in return. We're not even trying to do real research anymore; manned missions these days are just excuses to fix whatever piece of the shuttle broke on the way up, and maybe pop another module to a space station that seems to be its own raison d'ĂȘtre.

In fact, one of NASA's points of pride is that its rovers and probes now use cheap, off-the-shelf parts. NASA sees that as proof that it's learning to work on a budget; I see it as proof that its innovative days are over. I'd rather spend $500 million and have learned something new than spend $100 million for what is, essentially, an expensive toy.

And while I'm trying my best to bite my tongue and not delve into a rant about the agency's all-consuming obsession to find water on Mars, suffice it to say that my world would be not be rocked in the least if they found ice there, or even evidence of Martian bacteria.

Where does that leave space research? At the risk of shedding my usual pinko hue for a deeper red, it's time for government to just get out of the private sector's way. The X Prize produced more innovation in space travel in eight years than NASA has since inventing the shuttle in 1981. If we want to make space travel a part of daily life, NASA's space missions should be gutted and the money appropriated to incentives in the private sector.

To be fair, there is still a substantial amount of pure research the government does through NASA. In particular, space telescopes and probes are giving us fascinating new insights to the universe. We've all but confirmed that black holes exist, and much of that research has been in the past decade; we're seeing farther and farther out, and thus farther and farther back in time. NASA should keep these research projects; but it should start shifting away from the job of getting the satellites themselves into orbit.

And please, can we stop talking about manned missions to Mars until we have a reason to go there? "Because it is there" is a great reason to go where no man has gone before, but George Mallory didn't cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

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