The Kindest Cut

If we’re going to cut NASA funding, let’s make it meaningful.

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Not so with bureaucracies like NASA and DOD. Government agencies do not have to deal with a competitive market or elections. They are insulated from such pressures by political patrons, special interests, and civil service protection. So another, more Shermanesque approach is necessary.

Mancur Olson, an economist at the University of Maryland, published a book a few years ago, The Rise and Decline of Nations, in which he noted that virtually all governments became

moribund over time. The notable exceptions, he discovered, were countries such as Germany and Japan, which had lost major wars. Olson concluded that losing a war and experiencing the total uprooting of one's government had the unexpected benefit of dislodging special interest groups and bureaucracies that had grown inefficient and complacent.

Since we can't very well send a flight of B-29s to NASA headquarters on a mission to "streamline" its bureaucracy and inject some competition, the best solution may be the massive budget cuts proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich and his fellow Deficit Hawks.

Halfhearted cuts of, say, one or two billion per year would not work. Indeed, they could be counterproductive, because the small, innovative programs that NASA and DOD have undertaken would be the most vulnerable to being lopped off. We need to be more aggressive.

For example, imagine for a moment what would happen if we cut back NASA's budget by about 30 percent--to $10 billion. We would not be able to meet the target just by eliminating the small programs. We would be forced to cancel the space station. We might even have to ground the shuttle.

On the other hand, we would also free up several billion dollars more each year to spend on more productive R&D and technology development. Once we kill the dinosaurs, we could foster more competition by spreading smaller amounts of money over a larger number of organizations--including some from outside the current establishment.

Consider some of the opportunities. An all-out test program for hybrid rocket motors could be completed for about $80 million. A program to develop a lower-cost, low-pollution solid rocket motor could cost about the same. Low-cost, high-payoff probes and satellites like Lewis, Clark, Lunar Prospector, and Mars Explorer go for about $50 to $150 million each; we could, in effect, double or even triple Goldin's New Millennium effort.

At the higher end of the scale, we could support a wider variety of approaches to reduce launch costs. For instance, NASA now spends about $170 million to support three teams developing single-stage-to-orbit vehicle concepts; probably only one team will get the chance to build a prototype. By flying less now, we could support a broader-based SSTO effort and still have enough left over to fund other launch concepts, such as two-stage-to-orbit vehicles and low-cost expendables.

Now ask yourself: Which would produce more science--flying a few shuttle missions each year or launching hordes of low-cost probes and satellites? Which would have the greater long-run effect on space technology--building a manned space station or deferring the station and using the funds to develop the technologies necessary for truly economical launch vehicles? By canceling high-profile programs today, we could redirect the money and lay the groundwork for a new golden age of space exploration in, say, 2005.

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