COMMENTARY: Congress shouldn’t mix planets and politics

In a 2009 panel on all-things science, noted self-proclaimed nerd Neil deGrasse Tyson shocked his audience in his answer to a politically loaded question. When asked which political party was better for science, Tyson remarked that Republicans were in fact more reliable providers of science funding.

While many on the right cheered this response, his answer relies on the false presumption that being "pro-science" means heavy government support and intervention into all things geeky. And, as the latest budget negotiations over NASA show, congressional Republicans are not immune from this faulty logic.

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The $19.8 billion proposed by appropriators for NASA funding represents a $200 million increase from the year before. This is happening in the midst of large spending cuts to virtually all other federal programs and agencies. By constraining NASA’s mission and opening the door to private space exploration, lawmakers can be truly “pro-science” without bilking taxpayers.

NASA has enjoyed "sacred cow" status in Washington for decades, despite problems in execution and priorities endemic to any other area of government. The New Horizons mission to Pluto was initially estimated to cost $650 million, but that figure crept up to $720 million by the end of the probe's journey.

NASA missions regularly experience cost overruns north of 20 percent, with Discovery and Mars Scout programs among the biggest offenders. Despite assertions that cost-overruns have decreased in recent years, the Government Accountability Office already sees warning signs of overrun in NASA’s current projects. NASA’s three coming human exploration programs, for example, will likely face delays and cost overruns according to a report released in April.

Mixing space science with public dollars makes for truly strange planetary politics, such as the Republicans' long-held fascination with Europa. When the Bush administration "promptly canceled (a mission to) Pluto in favor of Europa" in 2000, then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., dug in and repeatedly engineered pro-Pluto NASA budgets. The administration was finally cornered by National Academy of Science maneuvering, and approved funding for a mission to Pluto. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, has continued this push toward Europa, inserting language into appropriations bills that pushes NASA's mission to Jupiter's ice-covered moon. The Trump administration seems similarly eager to direct NASA funding toward exploring Europa at the expense of his predecessor's focus on asteroid probing.

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But there is an alternative to this expensive, bizarre tug-of-war over space funding. Advocates of robust nationalized space programs contend that the private sector cannot pick up the slack, given the tremendous capital expenditures necessary for space exploration. This assertion, though, ignores the history of private funding of scientific research.

As Terence Kealey notes, public funding of large-scale scientific endeavors is largely a post-WWII phenomenon. Early advancements in our understanding of particle collision, stellar formation and DNA were funded via private coffers. If the Rockefeller Foundation was able to fund mammoth projects such as the Palomar Observatory and the cyclotron, contemporary philanthropy can finance interstellar probes.

Shorter missions to the moon and asteroids can be funded via mining prospects rather than philanthropic considerations. The Moon Express, a company seeking to mine the moon for valuable metals, has “all the capital it needs to land its small robotic spacecraft on the surface of the moon in November or December of 2017.”

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Recent congressional legislation allows for companies to have property rights on extracted resources on extraterrestrial worlds, but considerable ambiguity remains. Real estate beyond Earth remains subject to the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits private actors from homesteading land beyond our planet.

A withdrawal from this treaty, and comprehensive guarantee of extraterrestrial property rights could spearhead more private space exploration, as mining, tourism and real estate firms rush to get their slice of the action. Different financial sources for short- and long-distance exploration will ensure that both are adequately funded, and politics is kept out of outer space.

When it comes to being “pro-science,” lawmakers face a drastic choice. They could continue to exempt NASA from budget cuts, and earn empty rhetorical points as being more “pro-science” than political opponents. Or they can embrace a truly pro-science agenda that doesn’t put taxpayers on the line for billions in unwanted and unnecessary projects.

Ross Marchand is a policy analyst with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, He wrote this for

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