Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
The $50 Million Carnival Ride
WASHINGTON, DC, October 6, 1998 --
NASA's decision to send Senator John Glenn (D-OH)
back into orbit marks an all-time low for the manned space program. Long
gone are the golden days of the space age when little boys dreamed about
living and working in orbit. Once commonplace ideas about Martian colonies
and mining of the moon have been swept into the budgetary dustbin by the
crushing weight of economic reality. The sky-high ideas that seemed so
close 30 years ago now seem as distant as ever.
Although mainstream culture changed to acknowledge this reality, NASA
has continued to cling to the dream. It has done so while completely losing
any sense of purpose. The facts behind Senator Glenn's flight shows just
how far NASA has fallen.
If everything goes according to plan, the 77-year-old Senator will blast
off on the Space Shuttle on October 29, and spend a week in orbit before
returning to earth. The purpose for this little jaunt, says Glenn and
NASA, is to study the similarity of effects between aging and weightlessness
on the human body.1 Non-NASA scientists have scoffed at this
excuse for putting Glenn in space. Former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave
denounced the plan, referring to Glenn as a "legislative passenger."2
The agency dismissed these criticisms and asserted that Glenn's experience
and physical condition make him qualified for flight regardless of the
Maybe so. But his qualifications do nothing to lessen the appearance
of impropriety. Throughout his tenure in the Senate, Glenn has been a
staunch supporter of increased funding for the agency. Now that he is
poised to retire, the Senator is preparing to take an awfully expensive
carnival ride at taxpayer expense.
The 1997 budget for NASA allocated $2.9 billion for space shuttle operations.
The cost of each launch, based on a schedule of eight missions per year,
comes to $362 million per flight. Dividing this cost evenly between Glenn
and the other six passengers yields a per person per ride ticket price
of $52 million.3 That's a hell of a payoff for Glenn's loyal
service in the Senate.
Such an outrageous waste of taxpayer money should lead to an investigation
into the merits of NASA's entire manned space program. The agency spends
$6 billion annually putting men in space.4 About half this
money is spent on the shuttle, while much of the rest is put into the
development of the planned space station. These expenses are poised to
soar, based on NASA's announcement of the need for a $660 million bailout
of the Russian contribution.5
Just what these huge expenses are supposed to do to benefit the taxpayers
is anything but clear. The practicality of putting men in space has been
part of an intense debate since hundreds of billions of dollars were wasted
on reaching the moon during the Apollo program.
NASA's standard response to questions about of the economic benefits
of manned space flight is to avoid the issue. According to a NASA website,
"Every dollar spent by NASA returns at least two dollars in direct
and indirect benefits."6 The indirect benefits, they say,
include commercial spin-offs from technologies associated with manned
But this argument is flawed. Any expenditure of money will produce indirect
benefits. Take for example, replacing a broken window. The act of replacing
the window will benefit the glassmaker, the repairman and many other people
who work in the process. But in the end, money is lost because the owner
of the window will not be able to spend his resources on more productive
This is exactly the case with NASA. Imagine how much better off Americans
would be if the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the manned space
program had been put into productive businesses 30 years ago. Instead,
the only direct benefit the world has to show for the money is a large
pile of worthless rocks scraped from the surface of the moon.
Of course, economic reality does nothing to diminish the excitement and awe people associate with trips into space. The individual's desire to explore is the true meaning behind any manned space flight. The best course for NASA would be to acknowledge this reality, and divorce its manned space activities from its scientific and practical endeavors. Orbital space flights could then openly become what they secretly have been for decades: the ultimate carnival ride.