Falling Far Short

Posted: Aug 24, 2013 12:01 AM

NASA is between a rock and a hard place. Or, to be more correct, it’s in a hard place, because it cannot find a rock.

“It’s got to be out there somewhere -- a small asteroid circling the sun and passing close to Earth,” Joel Achenbach wrote on the front page of The Washington Post. The mystery rock should be about 25 feet in diameter. And mostly solid.

If NASA scientists can find this rock (and like the famous drunk, they should probably try looking where the light is good) it can launch a $2 billion mission to catch it and throw it into orbit around the moon. Presumably they chose lunar orbit so the space rock wouldn’t bump into the mostly-useless International Space Station (it is good for spotting UFOs, which could come in handy if we need to reclose Area 51), which NASA helped put into orbit around the Earth.

Anyway, once the rock is where scientists want it, they can spend untold millions (or billions) more launching a mission to explore it, bring back samples and so forth. That would be fun and exciting.

Achenbach notes that the asteroid mission “has emerged as a central element of NASA’s human spaceflight strategy for the next decade. Rarely has the agency proposed an idea so controversial among lawmakers, so fraught with technical and scientific uncertainties, and so hard to explain to ordinary people.”

Maybe that’s because the mission doesn’t pass the “why?” test. Why would we want to relocate an asteroid? Why would we want to study it? Why should the federal government throw tax money away on this mission. Etc.

Meanwhile, the federal government has decided there are other areas where it won’t shoot for the stars anymore. Public health, for example, where budget cuts are already slowing down the National Institutes of Health.

“Much research proposed by extraordinarily talented physicians and scientists cannot proceed because the required funding is prevented by the intentional irrationality by which the sequester is administered,” George Will notes.

The federal government ought to be able to cut, say, 2 percent of its spending fairly easily. Businesses large and small do so all the time. Plenty of families have cut back more than that since the 2008 recession hit.

But if it made intelligent cuts, few would even notice. So, the sequester, Will writes, has “been made deliberately dumb by mandatory administrative rigidities intended to maximize pain in order to weaken resistance to any spending restraint. Spending on basic medical research is being starved as the river of agriculture subsidies rolls on.”

Indeed, bureaucrats have made the cuts as visible as possible. The administration ended White House tours and slashed the number of meat inspections. And Congress did its part, by making half of the sequester cuts apply to defense, one of the constitutionally required federal duties. Meanwhile we’re still pumping ethanol into our tanks, costing us money and gas mileage.

There’s a simple way to save money. Slash NASA’s budget, and allow private companies to explore space. There are already millionaires lining up to go into space. Let them pay for it, and take the risks associated with it. Anything they learn about asteroids, or planets, or whether ants can be trained to sort tiny screws in space will quickly become public knowledge anyway, whether or not the government paid for it.

Instead of searching for missions, NASA could find ways to pitch in closer to Earth. Giving some of its funding to medical research would be a good start.