Last Wednesday, in an op-ed for The Orange County Register, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy made the case that while amazing, our newest “R/C” space crusade to Martian terra firma is ultimately unaffordable:
“At 2.5 billion and counting […] it's a hell of a neat trick that NASA just pulled off, and it's sure to generate a lot of amazing video. And yet, Houston – and Washington – we have a problem. By the end of the year, the Congressional Budget Office warns, federal debt will approach 70 percent of GDP, near the post-World War II high. In 25 years, CBO projects, health care and retirement outlays will consume nearly as large a share of the economy as the entire federal government does today.”
In other words, quips Healy, “This is why we can’t have neat things.”
The space rover Curiosity is keeping busy collecting soil sample to test for microbial life. According to NASA’s James Green, evidence thereof would demand that humankind “rethink our place in the universe.” Healy suggests that reckoning “our place in the universe” isn’t an essential purpose of federal government. And he’s absolutely correct.
Listen, I understand an inclination to achieve what’s awesome. And having the ability to scope out the dusty, desolate panoramas of the Red Planet from the comfort of your laptop is just that. According to the LA Times, the linked panorama – which is almost impossibly reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine – was compiled by Andrew Bodrov, a user on the 360cities.net, a website dedicated to panoramic photos.
But maybe we should expect even more? Back in 1998, Edward Hughes – also of Cato – wrote in the Baltimore Sun:
"Put the progress in spaceflight in historical perspective. The Wright brothers' first flight was in 1903, and Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. By the late 1930s, the first commercially viable aircraft, the DC-3, was flying. But 35 years after Mr. Glenn's first flight [Hughes writes at the time of Glenn’s “bread and circus” foray into orbit as a 77 year old] travel into space is still an expensive luxury."
So while Gene’s correct, and NASA is expensive…it may also be inefficient? Perhaps that’s not too much of a stretch for the same government that brought you the U.S. Post Office and the Pentagon.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that “After traveling some 350 million miles and executing a flawless supersonic-parachute-and-sky-crane-assisted touchdown on the Red Planet, NASA's Curiosity Mars rover is just kicking back and relaxing for a few days.”
So, yeah. That sounds about right.
Hughes wasn't conflating (precisely) contemporary space travel with those intrepid, aeronautical pioneers. But running with his theme, I'll humbly suggest that it's not necessarily crazy to expect something even more “mind-boggling” than a Martian landscape via web browser…that was, itself, brought to you not by NASA, but by user generated content.