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About that debate…

June 14, 2011

For those not following along in the way too early republican primary season for the presidential nomination, yesterday was CNN’s first GOP debate – and technically the first to include the majority of the declared candidates. In the grand scheme of things, a debate this early doesn’t really matter. Some of the candidates will drop out before the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses (most likely – Newt?), and some will join in (Palin? Christie?), dramatically changing whatever fragile playing field we currently are working with.

HOWEVER… it did provide two interesting moments that got me thinking- one of which I’ll deal with in this post. The first was Newt Gingrinch with this statement:

If you take all the money we’ve spent at NASA since we landed on the moon and you had applied that money for incentives to the private sector, we would today probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles. And instead, what we’ve had is bureaucracy after bureaucracy after bureaucracy and failure after failure. (Source)

Now, I will readily admit that I am in favor of NASA, support it, and will defend it in discussions. So any talk about how we need to cut its budget has me on edge. However, I understand some people have issues with the way it operates, so I think it is a valid point to look into those. Before I directly address Mr. Gingrich’s point, I’d like to talk a bit about the amount of money we are spending – how much, and what it really means.

The NASA budget for 2010 was $18.154 Billion dollars. This is a bit higher than the previous few years, but since 187 the budget has hovered, in 2007 dollar terms, between $14.5 Billion and $18.5 Billion – in other words, reasonably stable. In all but six of those years it was below $17 Billion. This equates to for all but 3 years of that time, less than 1% of the U.S. Budget – and in recent years, it’s in the .5-.7% range. So while $17 billion is nothing to sneeze at, it’s a tiny tiny fraction of what the U.S. Government spends money on.

Now back to the ex-Speaker’s statement. His contention is that the money we’ve spent since landing on the moon (1969), could have been better spent on incentives for the private sector, and that with those incentives, we would “probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles.” During a debate format he doesn’t really have time to expand on this, so it is somewhat unfair to unpack this statement. He does say, a few seconds later in response to the moderator:

“John, you mischaracterized me. I didn’t say end the space program. We built the transcontinental railroads without a national department of railroads. I said you could get into space faster, better, more effectively, more creatively if you decentralized it, got it out of Washington, and cut out the bureaucracy. It’s not about getting rid of the space program; it’s about getting to a real space program that works. “

So basically, if we can use Mr. Gingrinch’s words here, he would (1) incentivise the private sector to invest in space exploration and technologies, and in the process you would decentralize it (making it more creative, [2]), and cut out the Bureaucracy (which we can assume means lower costs and more efficiency [3]). I have issues with all of these assertions.

Point 1: I question what possible incentives that the U.S. Government could give to private industry to make them want to do work on this area on their own. Tax breaks? Something else? Where is the profit motive for the companies. Considering the amount of money we have spent on our space program (obviously some good and back), and the heavy risks associated with space flight, what could entice a company to pay for all that research, beyond say, being paid by the government to do it (what we do now).

Point 2: This one is hard to comment on. We have contracting methods to allow for creativity in the U.S. Government, but who knows if NASA is using them. It is certainly possibly that letting private industry attack this problem could result in some creativity – whether that is more or less seems like a matter of debate. For years now research funded by NASA, which is a big portion of the NASA budget, has produced creative technologies that impact everyone’s lives (teflon being an early example of this, but there are many more – see the “Spinoffs” publication by NASA, or this webpage. )

Point 3: This is the same tired comment that private industry is more efficient than government because of the bureaucracy of government. The counter to this is that when government decides to do something, it can absorb a lot more risk, and fund research that is much further “out there” then a private company with investors, a board, and a profit motive. Much of the research that NASA funds, just like the NSF, NIH, and DARPA is research that would never get done privately because it is not profitable – but it is still useful.

I would implore people, when discussing the role NASA, and indeed all our research funding agencies have, to be aware of some of the issues I raise above. The private sector is very very good at innovating and adapting – but it follows the money, and it does so at it’s own schedule. If the U.S. government is going to prioritize certain things, then we need to put our money where our mouth is.

And certainly – even if we massively helped the private sector, we would not have that many bases in space…. we don’t nearly have the tech for one on the moon currently. Wish we did, though.

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