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Not Even the Sky Is the Limit

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The scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour last month was supposed to be notable, not just because it was to be the last launch of this particular shuttle, but because of two special guests who traveled to the Space Center to witness the now-delayed launch.

President Obama traveled to Florida for the launch, as did Gabrielle Giffords, the member of Congress who was shot on January 8 in Tucson, Arizona. Giffords is the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. She is also the wife of Mark Kelly, the pilot of the Space Shuttle.

The first shuttle, named Columbia, was launched in 1981. After twenty-seven more missions, it disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven of its crew members. The shuttle Challenger was first launched in 2003. On its tenth mission in 1986, it broke apart 73 seconds into its takeoff, killing all seven of its crew members. The shuttle Discovery was retired earlier this year after 39 flights into space. The shuttle Atlantis will fly its thirty-third and last mission this summer. The shuttle Endeavour that was supposed to launch last month has already made twenty-four flights. All told, there have been 133 Space Shuttle missions.

Everyone seems to support the Space Shuttle program. When President Obama visited the Kennedy Space Center last year and addressed NASA workers, self-proclaimed fiscally conservative Tea Party members demonstrated outside about the president’s supposed scrapping of the government’s space program. A demonstrator with Space Coast Patriots said she didn’t have a problem reconciling her Tea Party beliefs with her support for more NASA spending.

Total spending on the Space Shuttle program is estimated to reach about $175 billion when the last shuttle is retired later this year. The program occupies over 654 facilities, uses over 1.2 million line items of equipment, valued at over $12 billion, and employs over 5,000 workers. The costs related to each Shuttle launch are over a billion dollars.

The Space Shuttle program has been criticized for failing to achieve its promised cost and utility goals, safety issues, deadly accidents, low launch rates, complex maintenance requirements, and failing to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access.

These things may all be true, they may all not be true, or some of them may be true and some of them may not be true. To the libertarian, these things are all irrelevant.

Although there would be nothing wrong with a private space shuttle, there should be no government space shuttle. And that’s not all. There should be no government space program to begin with. The only justifiable purpose of government is for the protection of life, liberty, and property from the violence or fraud of others. There are no other legitimate reasons. Space exploration and experimentation are no more legitimate purposes of government than providing health care to the poor (Medicaid) or the aged (Medicare), micro-managing personal behavior, publishing dietary guidelines, undertaking scientific research, fluoridating the water supply, banning unpasteurized dairy products, or mandating that car dealers close on Sunday.

But regardless of what Americans may want the federal government to do, a simple reading of the Constitution is all it takes to see that 95 percent of everything the government does is illegitimate. The Constitution doesn’t even authorize the federal government to make internal improvements like constructing canals, roads, and bridges. President James Madison, in 1817, vetoed a public works bill for this very reason:

I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses, and that a power in the National Legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments, and that no adequate landmarks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it, and to cherishing the hope that its beneficial objects may be attained by a resort for the necessary powers to the same wisdom and virtue in the nation which established the Constitution in its actual form and providently marked out in the instrument itself a safe and practicable mode of improving it as experience might suggest.

Conservatives who recognize that the federal government has no business providing health care, welfare, and school lunches are woefully inconsistent when they support a government-run and government-financed space program.

But what about the supposed benefits of the space program to science, medicine, and engineering? Just like the supposed benefits brought about military spending, the supposed benefits of the space program are used to justify its cost. According to NASA:

Technology transfer has been a mandate for NASA since the agency was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. The act requires that NASA provide the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and results. It also provides NASA with the authority to patent inventions to which it has title. The term “spinoff”was invented to describe specific technologies developed by NASA for its missions that are transferred for commercial use or some other beneficial application. Thus far, NASA has documented more than 1,500 spinoff success stories.

But it should be noted that NASA has been incorrectly credited with inventing a host of things like Tang, Velcro, the microwave oven, Teflon, nylon, semiconductors, microprocessors, and integrated circuits. The first liquid-fueled rocket was invented thirty years before the government even created NASA. And despite what we hear about the merits of the space program and all the technological achievements it has wrought, there is actually no way to tell what the space program has done for society.

But regardless of what benefits the space program has or hasn’t given to the world, there is still no philosophical or constitutional justification for the U.S. government’s having a space program. If an exception can be made for the space program, when there is no constitutional authority for the government to conduct any scientific exploration, experimentation, or investigation, then an exception can be made for anything.

As a last resort, the importance of NASA to national security is sometimes cited. God only knows how much evil has been perpetrated by the U.S. government in the name of national security. But the space program was never about national security. It was always about national pride and funneling taxpayer dollars to privileged scientists, researchers, and contractors.

There is absolutely no reason why space exploration and experimentation could not be handled on a voluntary basis on the free market. Back in October of 2004, the privately funded SpaceShipOne climbed to an altitude of over 70 miles, becoming the first manned private spaceflight and winning a $10 million prize for doing so. The government space program has likewise overshadowed other private space-related achievements. Private space shuttles, private rockets, private satellites, private trips into space, private trips to the moon — in the absence of a government monopoly and market restrictions, not even the sky is the limit.

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