Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 22, 2003
POLITICS/SCIENCE: A RESPONSE TO DOUG TURNBULL
Doug Turnbull has set out, at some length, a thoughtful explanation of why he thinks that the case for a space program is just as grounded in impractical romanticism as much of modern environmentalism:
Can anyone come up with an argument for manned space flight that couldn't, with a few changed words, also be used to support a ban on ANWR drilling, or almost any pro-environmental position, for that matter? Both seem to rest on a fundamental romanticism--in the one case of space, in the other of wilderness and wildlife here on earth. Both involve large economic costs to pursue this romantic goal, with either no economic payoff, or a highly questionable economic payoff in the distant future.
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I'm more sympathetic to the environmental arguments, since the costs there (such as species extinction and habitat loss) are much clearer and more obvious than the supposed benefits of space flight, which seem to mainly focus on intangibles like the human spirit of conquest and exploration.
I've seen others make this point, and it's a fair criticism. Certainly much of the terms in which the space program is described by its admirers is explicitly aimed at our imagination rather than any hard grip on the day-to-day world the rest of us inhabit. Charles Krauthammer's stirring call to Mars is one of the best exemplars of this phenomenon.
In the end, though, I think that a fair distinction can be made between the two. Let's count the ways (albeit with a lot of overlap between my arguments):
1. The Costs of The Space Program Are More Explicit. The space program costs money, a lot of money; Turnbull pinpoints the cost of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station at $5.5 billion/year. But we can see that cost, and publicly debate it. The big problem conservatives have with environmentalism isn't the EPA's budget, which I suspect (without checking) is a good deal larger than NASA's. The problem is with all sorts of costs imposed by regulations on businesses, which impede economic growth in ways that are hard to measure and thus far less immediately subject to public scrutiny than NASA's budget.
2. The Costs of The Space Program Are Far Smaller. As I noted above, the cost of the space program as a whole is unlikely, in the near future, to exceed the very low 11 digits. Now, $10 billion may be a lot of money, but that's peanuts compared to the costs that would be imposed if we ever had to follow, say, the Kyoto Treaty.
3. The Space Program Places No Limits On Human Liberty. Costs aren't only measured in dollars. The space program costs us nothing but taxpayer money, and while I don't underestimate the cost of taxpayer money, environmental regulations impose other serious costs -- restrictions on businesses, impositions on communities and their livelihoods, barriers on the aspirations of working people who want to be self-sufficient.
4. We Don't Force Poor Countries To Have Space Programs. The environmental movement is forever trying to get the United States to insist on environmental restrictions on foreign countries, where people are trying to escape subsistence economies and raise standards of living to points that we take for granted in terms of our health and longetivity. The space program asks nothing of farmers in Zambia or the Amazon jungles, just the people who pay federal income taxes -- and we know who they are.
5. A Private Sector Space Program Would Be Even Better. Most conservative thinkers about space would gladly see a larger role for the private sector in the space program -- maybe not an exclusive role, but a larger one. Come to think of it, they're the same people who think that voluntary private sector efforts on the environment can be good for the economy. (Krauthammer, by the way, is quite explicit in explaining that he thinks government is just better at things like the space program that involve linear goal-driven projects rather than ham-handed attempts to screw with incentives in private conduct).
6. The Space Program Does Not Harm Our Sovereignty Or Infringe On Democratic Self-Government. Again, I get back to things like the Kyoto Treaty -- the environmental movement has made many efforts to get us to accept the dictates of international bodies our people did not elect. The space program makes no such demands, and instead proudly flies the American flag, even planting it on the moon (sorry, got a little emotional at the end there).
7. Space Has Military Applications. Now let's talk turkey -- as John Miller of the National Review noted (actually, I think he was quoting someone but I lost the article), space is "the ultimate high ground" -- by pushing our space program further, we can develop more military applications that have enormous usefulness in dangerous times. Miller's latest piece, on the use of Global Positioning Systems to improve the accuracy of our aerial bombardment and coordinate troop movements, underscores this.
8. Our Space Program Is Awe-Inspiring. I'm talking about the kind of awe that has practical uses: fear in the hearts of our enemies, respect of our friends. You can't buy the kind of propaganda, in the backward and dysfunctional societies where we must now seek to win hearts and minds and strike terror in those who wish to do so to us, than being the only nation ever to put a man on the moon. What that says to people who can't even get decent plumbing . . . it's incalculable. Mars? They can barely even see Mars.
But we can go there. And it will cost us much less than capping our smokestacks and reining in our standard of living.