Spacemen gambol
In the sky,
Burning taxes
As they fly.

President Barack Obama is surely on the right track in scratching our return to the moon and in dropping the Space Shuttle program.

Ever since the triumphant moon landing, NASA’s manned space program has been largely a boondoggle. I see it as a hyper-expensive gimmick to make the nation feel good about itself and to keep us from thinking too much about our real problems, like, say, war.

Large programs build their own constituencies. Some 9,000 jobs will vanish at the Kennedy Space Center when the Shuttle folds, and who knows how many others in Houston. The impending loss of profits to the big space contractors will also have political ramifications. These numbers are not so public, but they’re plenty big enough to pay for a regiment of lobbyists to keep the big-ticket space programs alive.

That lobbying is going on now. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and lots of smaller companies are doing just fine with the present system, thank you, and Mr. Obama’s plan to turn over considerable space initiatives to private enterprise isn’t in their interest.

They prefer government contracts. Who wants new competitors or the assumption of more risk? Big Business likes Big Daddy to take all the risk.

Businesses also like to have real people on whatever rockets go up. People do two important things on rockets: They multiply the cost of the project and they spur public excitement. Unmanned rockets can just zip off into space and radio back what they find. If you send out people you have to spend a mountain of money to bring them back. This translates into profits. Astronauts also conjure up visions of Star Wars and Star Trek, thus building dreamy public fantasies to help support appropriations.

More and more though, we don’t need people out there. Glamour aside, our most enlightening space probes are unmanned. The information they transmit is phenomenal and keeps huge laboratories of scientists burning the midnight oil. This is how civilization expands its knowledge of the universe. Sending out warm bodies is just for hype.

Human interest, of course, adds to the politics. The nation may be desperate for bridge repair, teachers, health clinics, pension solvency, mine inspectors, and other cogs in the wheel of life, but if we can excite enough voters about space, that’s where the money will go. Under-funded pensions and the perils of methane gas emissions fare poorly on TV.

This romance, in turn, offers wonderful grist for politicians who have NASA facilities or contractors in their districts. They hold hearings, they show videos, and they speak to the bright future of mankind as we personally conquer the cosmos.

Sounds a lot like Columbus. But really, manned space flights are more geared to the bright future of the leaders of corporations who sell all the stuff that’s used to make the shuttles, the space suits, the moon landers, the space stations, and the astronaut capsules. They quietly pay for the videos, the rallies, and the displays at the Smithsonian–as well as the lobbyists.

Meanwhile Obama, though wisely ending wasteful current projects, proposes plenty of waste of his own. His dream is to have spacemen on an asteroid in 2025 and Mars in 2035.

If America isn’t already in bankruptcy by then, those proposals will help nudge it along.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. www.otherwords.org