Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Wrong About NASA

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Katherine Mangu-Ward

Yesterday, The Atlantic ran an interview with physicist/celeb Neil deGrasse Tyson. Here's what he had to say about "how space exploration can make America great again": 

When everyone agrees to a single solution and a single plan, there's nothing more efficient in the world than an efficient democracy. 

Wrong. The space program has been a laughable mess for years now, sending elderly (and occasionally combustible) space buses back and forth to an increasingly pointless space station carrying "ant farms, recycled-urine-based finger paints, and other science fair experiments." And now NASA can't even do that

This isn't because the democratic consensus behind the space program has fractured, or because there's not enough money. It's because no one knows what we're doing up there, so they fall back on exaggerating the job creating/social justice promoting/kid inspiring that the space program is supposed to be doing down here. 

Tyson flirts with what I think is the right approach to government in space: If the feds must be involved, let them fund real pie in the sky (or blue sky? pick your sky pun) science. But then Tyson turns out to be no better than a pork-grubbing congressman who wants to keep space jobs in his district:

The problem is that many people operate on the assumption that NASA should go to Congress every year with hat in hand and justify it every year. Well, I see it as the greatest economic driver that there ever was. Economic drivers don't need justification.

More wrongness: Economic drivers don't need justification, unless they are part of our massive, out-of-control federal budget. Tyson wants to double NASA's take to 1 percent of federal expenditures. He describes it as "a penny on the dollar," which doesn't sound like he's asking for much. But 1 percent of a huge number of taxpayer dollars is, in fact, a huge number of taxpayer dollars and requires quite a lot of justification.

Nowhere mentioned in the interview is the most real, viable prospect for space-facing job creation: the growing commercial space sector. Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk of Space X, Jeff Greason of XCor, and many more are working feverishly to develop a product--flights into space--that people actually want to buy. They would be more than happy to employ NASA's talented and inspiring corps of engineers, scientists, and technologists as their companies grow. (They're also more than happy to snap up government contracts to provide rides back and forth to the space station and other launch services, a product we are currently buying from the Russians at a rather exorbitant rate.)

Last month, the fledgling industry was once again snatched from the jaws of bureaucracy when Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) inserted language into an appropriations bill which extends a 8-year moratorium on regulating the commercial spaceflight industry through 2015. Space entrepreneurs are giddy with relief. For now, the government will continue to treat passengers and pilots on experimental space vehicles like paragliders or scuba divers--as long as they are made aware of the risks and don't injure innocent bystanders, the feds will leave them alone.

So what's more efficient than single-minded democracies? Say it with me now: Markets!

Disclosure: Even though his NASA punditry blows, I think Tyson is pretty awesome. As noted in the interview, he tweets about stuff like what color stop lights would be if we had copper-based blood. (Answer: green?) 

Bonus semi-related Daily Show video: In which Tyson promises to give up physics if Lin will give up basketball, in the name of restoring racial stereotypes.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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