The sequester has forced Washington, D.C. to tighten its belt.
The spending restraint is long overdue. Total federal debt now exceeds, by most estimates, one year's U.S. gross domestic product. Even so, the modest reduction in spending the sequester has forced the federal government to absorb is not nearly enough to get the books in balance.
It's also not, as recent reports have shown, enough to force the government to prioritize or even to show a little common sense. Exhibit A is the new plan underway at NASA, which has had little to do since the space shuttle program was terminated, to lasso an asteroid at an estimated cost of $100 million.
According to the online blog Hot Air, "The capture plan is being described as a ‘baggie with a draw string' to snag the rock – ideally 25 ft across and 500 tons – and drag it back here to park it in orbit near the moon." Scientists could then examine it with an eye to potentially learning something "which could be used for asteroid mining in the future."
If the economy were growing at a healthy rate, say 4 percent per year, then maybe such an experiment could be justified. Science and experimentation drives job creation, produces economic growth and, to put it bluntly, can be really interesting. The nation certainly profited from President Kennedy's vow to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth within a decade. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs added considerably to America's national honor, fostered a countrywide spirit of adventure and attracted countless children into careers in math and science.
Now, under Obama, NASA has little to do. Instead of returning to the moon or planning for a manned mission to Mars, as President George W. Bush once proposed, the current administration has relegated the once storied agency to the job of making the Islamic world feel good about the many contributions it has made to science and mathematics over the centuries.
Turning astronauts into space-based version of Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers, doing what amounts to extremely expensive, technologically sophisticated rope tricks, does not measure up – especially when the economy is growing at less than 1 percent. The money is just not there for such flights of fancy.
In fact, the entire U.S. science budget could stand stricter scrutiny. From studies of poultry genitalia to the Starbase Youth Program – which teaches science, technology, engineering, and math to at-risk youth living near military bases located around the United States, a task that could easily be taken up by a private sector that needs the trained work force – there is just too much science pork out there for anyone to be comfortable.
More than that, government science, as a cultural matter, becomes the "accepted science," which then attracts the best scientists and researchers because the funding stream is continual and essentially guaranteed.
To boldly go where no man or woman has gone before, America must first get its financial house in order. If the government continues to spend money on such luxuries as the "Lasso an Asteroid" program, there will be less money available for core functions. By failing to choose between "guns" and "butter," the country may someday find itself in the position where it can afford neither – unless the Chinese, who have a space program of their own, continue to lend us the money.