Runcible Blog

Bush: Straight to the Moon!

Bush's plan for manned missions to Mars and the moon has been receiving a fair amount of criticism already. It's surprising to see the Tribune come out against a Bush policy. That can't be a good sign.

I think criticism of the policy is warranted, but not for the same reasons most people are using. According to the Tribune, "the public is evenly split on the wisdom of sending humans back to the moon and beyond; and if forced to choose, a majority (55 percent) would rather see the money spent on domestic programs." It looks like the Op-Ed's are focusing on the financial aspect of the policy rather than the scientific worth. Now, as ever, there are plenty of people calling for the dismantlement of the entire space program, claiming it is a waste of money that could be spent on schools or other social programs. Those critics do have a point -- space exploration is expensive, but unfortunately I think NASA is unjustly being treated as the whipping boy of the government, as usual.

Any time there is a major story about a NASA proposal or anything dealing with tax money, critics come out of the woodwork to propose massive cuts in the already drastically cut NASA budget. I did a quick search for the budget numbers, and here's what I found, for comparison:
NASA Fiscal Year 2003 Budget: $15.0 billion
NASA Fiscal Year 2004 Budget: $15.47 billion
2% of the discretionary budget
Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2003 Budget: $364.6 billion
Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2004 Budget: $379.9 billion
Nearly 50% of the discretionary budget
Department of Homeland Security Fiscal Year 2004 Budget $41.3 (or $26.7 if you use fuzzy math) billion

I chose to pick on the Defense Department's budget, but nearly every other department of the government has a larger budget than NASA. The fact is that Americans pay at least 25 times as much tax money for developing weapons of mass destruction than we do for space exploration, and 7 times as much as we spend on education. Yet where are the public debates about whether we should spend $12.2 billion this year for building ships, or $8 billion for a missile defense system which has been a huge boondoggle to date and which probably won't protect America at all? When will Americans start writing letters complaining that we already have enough F-22 fighters and that $5.2 billion can be better used improving infrastructure?

There was much controversy about the Big Dig's budget overruns. I think at last count the project has cost upwards of $15 billion dollars over 20 (?) years. The Department of Defense has already spent that amount in the first two weeks of January (if you average the money out over time). Think about that for a second. Talk about misplaced priorities.

In an economic slowdown, NASA and other scientific endeavors face budget cuts and irate taxpayers, while the DOD carries on with business as usual. I'm sure real economists and political scientists can explain this phenomenon much better than I can, but just thinking about it from an average citizen's perspective boggles my mind.

So, I think there are good reasons to be skeptical of any manned missions to Mars or the moon at this time (and I'm sure many astrophysicists will agree); I just don't think money should be the primary concern. NASA seems to be doing "more with less" lately, and I think they have a lot of very interesting and useful programs in the planning stages (space telescopes, more unmanned probes/rovers, etc.) which should be encouraged and funded.

I would be happy if people started putting as much pressure on the Defense Department as they nitpick other Departments' budgets.

just my 2¢