The Magazine

Obama’s Asteroid

The decline of NASA and the senseless priorities of our government

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Meanwhile other people have been taking one giant leap for mankind. Space turns out to be extremely valuable—a great new private enterprise. Commercial revenues from space services, products, support industries, and infrastructure totaled $225.87 billion in 2012. That’s almost three times the amount that governments around the world spent on space last year. And let us not forget, when governments spend money on space, much of it is spent on intercontinental ballistic missiles, spy satellites, military command and control, drone guidance, and—for all that those of us who have a “Bottom Gossip” security clearance know—orbiting death rays. (DoD’s space budget is 65 percent larger than NASA’s.) Governments get world domination. We get SiriusXM satellite radio. And we’re outspending governments in space anyway.

The words “Space Age” have a quaint, nostalgic tone—sitting on midcentury modern furniture watching The Jetsons. But get out of the butterfly chair and fold the rabbit ears on the Philco—you’re living in the Space Age.

Without the space industry all those dishes hanging off window sills, receiving HD television reception and providing high-speed Internet connection in even the most remote corners of the world, would be just so many woks gone wrong.

Without the space industry, the only way you could use your satellite phone to communicate with someone would be by bonking him on the head with it. And satellite phones aren’t even big enough anymore to be very useful for that.

Meteorological predictions would be Grandpa’s mutterings about how his joints ache. There would have been no forewarning of Superstorm Sandy, and former members of the Jersey Shore cast might have been blown all the way to Canandaigua. What a natural disaster that would have been for New York’s Finger Lakes region.

Your GPS would be an old coot perched on your dashboard, chewing a stalk of hay. “Git on over to Old Pike Road. ’Cept they call it County Route 738 nowadays. An’ turn left where the Hendersons’ barn burned down in ’63.”

Air traffic control is largely satellite dependent. Absent satellites, when you’re squeezed into the middle seat on a flight to Orlando, you might not just wish you were dead, you might get that way.

And you couldn’t go to Google Earth to find out whether your neighbors are raising pigs in a backyard pen. You’d have to take a stepladder and peek over the fence. Nope, just dirty kids and a very dilapidated swing set.


Which brings us back to Congress and the White House. For more than 60 years it has been almost a rule of American politics that the less important an issue is to the American public, the more serious the American political system is about it—the United Nations, Korea, McCarthyism, the Suez Crisis, the wheat surplus, Quemoy and Matsu, the Peace Corps.

Back when we were the only rich nation on earth and the unemployment rate was half of what it is today, Congress and the White House launched a War on Poverty. When people customarily dropped dead in their sixties and medical treatment for the aged consisted of “Take two aspirin and call me if you don’t wake up in the morning,” Congress and the White House created an enormous Medicare program. And when we were flinging things and people into space for no particular reason—“to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”—NASA was receiving nearly 4.5 percent of the federal discretionary budget. Now it gets less than 0.5 percent.

The rule works in reverse too. The more important an issue is to the American public the sillier the political system gets. When information about the dangers of the 9/11 attack was lost among federal security bureaucracies, Congress and the White House added another layer of federal security bureaucracy. When the financial system fell down, Congress and the White House gave money to the people who caused the collapse instead of the people the system fell on. When the cost and complexity of medical care began to worry everyone, Congress and the White House changed the subject and bent our ear about insurance instead of health until we all felt like we’d been button-holed at a Rotary meeting by the local John Hancock agent determined to explain the relative merits of whole life and term. And now the scope of our federal budget deficit is matched only by the scope of the nothing Congress and the White House are doing about it.

There’s a lesson in all this, maybe a universal lesson. I don’t pretend to be wise enough to know what the lesson is. But let’s send our children to the planets and the stars. And let’s keep them out of Congress and the White House. 

P.  J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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