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The Circle Bastiat

Was the space shuttle worth it?

The US space shuttle program has cost around $200 billion, by some estimates. Has the program been a sign of America's greatness, or has the price made other areas of innovation drag?

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But even with competition from other governments, and even with NASA subcontracting to the private sector, the calculation problem remains. What was and is still being given up in order to build and maintain the ISS? What has been the opportunity cost of the various exploratory and research missions funded by the government? Without profit and loss, government space flight is unable to provide a credible economic justification for its own existence.

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The problem of unknowable opportunity costs puts a dent in the idea that government science programs create a "multiplier" that generates more than their cost in private-sector advancements. The research, new technologies, and discoveries that might have been products of the space-shuttle program exist in the shadow of other research, technologies, and discoveries that might have been produced with the resources had they remained in the private sector. Any NASA "multiplier" exists because a private-sector multiplier has been destroyed. There is, as Frederic Bastiat would say, "what is seen and what is unseen." Tim Swanson put it this way:

In the end, regardless of what the state did or did not fund or invent, the take-away principle is the unseen. While everyone with a TV has been able to see the hordes of chemical rockets dramatically blast into the cosmos over the past decades, they were similarly unable to see the productive opportunities foregone and ignored via the reallocation of scarce resources.

The perceived benefits of a vain, nationalized space program include, among others, the fallacious need to fight the mythical shortage of scientists and engineers. Whereas in reality, it has stymied private tourism, exploration, and research for nearly half a century.

In fact, there is reason to doubt that the technologies said to originate in the shuttle program and other parts of the space program are really the results of government "investment." As William L. Anderson has noted, "we have no evidence that the space program has created on its own any of the new technologies that make our material lives better; instead, the program has utilized existing technologies."

Sadly, the memorable theatrical displays NASA has produced over the years have distracted from the true costs of government enterprises. We are tempted to regard the federal government's space program as a bright symbol of American greatness, when in fact it has been a hindrance to American ingenuity and prosperity.

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