Have you been following the space news?

While the shuttle awaits its long-delayed launch, Congress has approved a $36 billion NASA budget for the next two years. The bulk of NASA’s budget is devoted to Pres. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” – a plan to establish bases on the Moon and Mars and finding a replacement for the space shuttle. Meanwhile, Russia has quadrupled its space budget to $17.4 billion for the next 5 years. (Though it was only able to afford the larger budget after nationalizing several large oil companies, and the planned budget may evaporate if it continues doing so.)

I have some thoughts on NASA’s continued incompetence and the hazards of state-run boondoggles:

Russia’s expanded budget is 1/5 that of NASA, and Russia is using 38 year old technology for its space program (versus the 20 year old shuttle), yet Russia has a space-faring, money-making program, and the shuttle sits grounded. Even when/if the shuttle finally takes flight, the maintenance cost of maintaining such ancient machinery is rapidly growing out of control.

Overall, the response to the Columbia disaster is emblematic of government programs and the political influences that drive them. The reason for the Columbia disaster is simple — an ancient and decaying technology crippled with environmental regulations and an unaccountable bureaucracy. The response has been just as bad. Instead of scrapping the project, billions have been thrown at the visible problem, ignoring the larger context of the situation. NASA’s official date for replacing the shuttle is 2014 — but that is just the latest of many delays. The reason is simple — government contractors enjoy making billions of dollars selling NASA outdated equipment, and politicians enjoy sending those billions to their home districts. The oversized, economically useless space shuttle was a political tool in its very conception, and any proposed replacement is likely to be an equally useless creation.

It is important to recognize that NASA’s problems are not a result of mismanagement or political interference, but the inevitable result of a state-run enterprise. The same trends exist in all government science projects, but NASA is especially prominent because it is such a grand waste of public funds that it requires far more propaganda to justify it.

The first thing to understand is that political interests do not just interfere with the space program — they are the space program. For example, the senate recently passed a measure that bars NASA from retiring the shuttle until a replacement is ready, and a bill to endorse a repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Do you think that those decisions were motivated by an educated consideration of the scientific value of those missions, or by interest groups and political expediency? Better and cheaper replacements have been proposed for both projects for over a decade — but from a political perspective, the worse and more expensive a project it, the higher the potential benefit it has politically.

The second thing to understand is that there is no such thing as “scientific value” independent of the concept of “economic value.” NASA operates on the opposite premise — it seizes funds from the public on the premise that it provides scientific values that a free economy cannot provide. The error in this position is that there is no objective means of determining the value of a scientific discovery or technological innovation outside of the economic value it provides to individuals, as expressed by their choice to consume certain goods over others. Because state agencies operate outside of the price mechanism (by looting others’ property to fund their projects), they have no means of knowing what value their services provide. On the contrary, they have an incentive to maximize value-destructive rather than value-creating activities, as the paragraph above explains. Their most common justification is to point to many examples of scientific and technical knowledge resulting from the space program. But this only hides the innovations that could have been made if individual investors had chosen how to direct those resources, rather than pragmatic politicians.

The last point I’ll make is about the meaninglessness of “privatization” movement thrown about by politicians and bureaucrats since the Reagan era. “Privatization” is a meaningless term so long as the government rather than the consumer directs investment. Decades of experience show that government contractors inevitable come to resemble the government bureaucracies they work for. Without market pressures, companies compete on public relations campaigns and lobbying groups rather than technological innovations.

The best recent examples of real innovation comes from private designers like Burt Rutan and organizations like the X Prize Foundation who are at the forefront of the space tourism industry.