NASA’s budget has hovered at or below (almost always below) 1% of US federal spending since about 1970. The exception to this was between 1963 and 1969, when NASA’s budget ranged from around 2% to a high of 4.4% of the budget. It doesn’t seem accidental that NASA’s sole great accomplishment, great in the sense not just of a merely technical feat but in that the imaginations of young men and poets alike are set afire by it, was achieved at the end of this period — that is to say, the landing of human beings on the first, and so far only, extraterrestrial body on which man has so far set foot.
When Nixon came to power, NASA’s founder, the visionary rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, was planning a rotating orbital station, a manned Moon base, and an expedition to Mars, the latter to be propelled by a revolutionary nuclear-thermal rocket — the NERVA engine, a working prototype of which NASA had already developed.
Nixon, instead, cut NASA’s budget to the bone, forced von Braun out, and replaced him with a time-serving bureaucrat who administered NASA like any other overly cautious government jobs program whose primary purpose was to provide a cushy life for government bureaucrats.
The NERVA was left to rust in an open field. The Apollo program was cancelled, and the institutional knowledge necessary to build the mighty Saturn V was lost. NASA focused on developing the space shuttle, intended to be a low-cost, reusable ferry for the construction of a space station that was never built; the space shuttle itself went the way of every bureaucratic project, coming in late, over budget, and lacking most of the capabilities the original design had called for.
Diversity has been the goal of NASA since 1972:
The result is that humans have spent the last 50 years paddling around in the shallow end of the great dark deep, sending out the occasional cautious robotic probe, but doing nothing of great consequence … nothing capable of setting the soul on fire.
With time, many came to believe that Apollo had never happened, that the whole thing had been movie magic on Stanley Kubrick’s sound stage. To imagine it was all a dream is less painful, perhaps, than to face the reality that we reached for greatness, flinched, and lost our nerve.
When confronted with their failure to do anything notable following Apollo, defenders of the space program will protest that space is hard. And this is true. It is. Just getting to and surviving in space, let alone settling and taming it, stretches the technical, biological, and psychological capacities of our species to their very limits.
Big investment, stupendous reward:
Establishing a permanent human presence — mining the Moon for He-3 and the asteroids for minerals, building refineries to turn ore into alloy, factories to transform alloy into habitats, engines, and ships, solar collectors to gather energy — requires a gargantuan up-front investment that will take decades to turn a profit. The eyes of private investors water when they contemplate such a project; only the state is capable of marshalling the resources over the length of time required for such a grand project to bear fruit.
However, when the profits start to flow, they will be immense.
The mineral wealth of individual asteroids is frequently estimated in the hundreds of trillions of dollars; the lowest-hanging fruit, the near-Earth asteroid Ryugu1, is estimated to be capable of yielding a profit of over $30 billion. Obviously, as mineral wealth pours in from the asteroid mines, the market value of minerals will fall — that’s inevitable, when the scarce becomes abundant. Yet the material wealth of society is not measured in numbers on a spreadsheet, but by the resources available to it. The scarce becoming abundant is the real meaning of wealth.
Importantly, most of the cost of orbital development is in actually getting to orbit. Once there, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system. Once the facilities to not just go to space, but to acquire resources and refine them into finished products in space, are in place, the costs of further development fall dramatically. Space is a steep cliff to climb, but a long, flat plateau once you’re there.
What would it mean for metal to become cheaper than plastic? For space-based solar power stations to beam their gigawatt hours down to the surface? How would our social mood change, not just with access to this wealth, but with the awareness that there is endlessly more to be had … not just more than enough to go around, but more than we could even need?
Resources are always limited; every choice of how to allocate our time and energy is always accompanied by an opportunity cost — the cost of not doing what we chose not to do. Over the last 50 years, we’ve chosen to put the bulk of our resources into social justice programs: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, welfare for single mothers, education in the inner cities, and the rest of dem programs. None of these are, or are even in principle capable of becoming, productive. As investments they are a raging inferno that burns our economic surplus to ashes. To put it in Christian terms, we have chosen to give men fish, rather than teaching them to fish … chosen to redistribute resources, rather than expand the available resources.
Meanwhile the enlightenment is ending, science is at the whim of social justice bureaucrats who determine funding, free speech is fading, and the average human IQ is falling fairly rapidly. Our ruling class is in denial about so many things, but not what makes it richer and more powerful. It can all be turned around, but a dark age looms.
In many ways, our civilization might have peaked in 1971.