Why Obama is Smart to Cut the NASA Moon Plan

Fly me to the moon? Eh, never mind.

President Obama's $3.8 trillion budget for fiscal 2011 doesn't cut very much, but it makes one budget slash that is sure to draw blood from certain constituencies: He's wants to end the NASA moon program and encourage the private sector to pick up the slack.

I know what some critics are going to say about this plan, because they've already said it.

This was Charles Krauthammer last year, on the

40th anniversary of the first moon landing:

America's manned space program is in shambles. Fourteen months from today, for the first time since 1962, the United States will be incapable not just of sending a man to the moon but of sending anyone into Earth orbit. We'll be totally grounded. We'll have to beg a ride from the Russians or perhaps even the Chinese.

So what, you say? Don't we have problems here on Earth? Oh, please. Poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us. If we'd waited for them to be rectified before venturing out, we'd still be living in caves...

Why do it? It's not for practicality. We didn't go to the moon to spin off cooling suits and freeze-dried fruit. Any technological return is a bonus, not a reason. We go for the wonder and glory of it.

This is exactly wrong. It's does not make sense to spend money on "wonder and glory" without any practical benefit, and Krauthammer knows this perfectly well. It's extraordinary that somebody who works himself into such a fury about pointless pork spending, will abandon his orthodox focus on practicality only when the end is not people, no, but an inanimate satellite.

Where I feel sympathy for the space program is not the space part, but the program. Florida's Sen. Bil Nelson told reporters ""I, for one, intend to stand up and fight for NASA, and for the thousands of people who stand to lose their jobs." Job loss is a real concern, but one fact that will be obscured by the noise over our lunar drawback is that total NASA spending will actually go up in Obama's budget by $1 billion. Other agencies that fall under discretionary spending will not be so lucky because of the announced freeze to demonstrate the administration's seriousness about fiscal restraint.

Nelson's plea reveals the political impossibility of meaningful spending cuts. If it is unacceptable to increase a department's budget by one billion dollars while cutting one of its programs whose advocates admit is "not for practicality," then what part of fiscal restraint will be acceptable?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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