Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

End of the Gravy Train

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 26, 2011 --  

The suspension of America's space program was long overdue.

It was nice work while you could get it. For fifty years during the heyday of America's space program, about 300 hot shot pilots got rides into orbit or on to the moon -- all at taxpayer expense. Better yet, they also got paid to do take the trips. Not a bad deal.

This heyday ended last week when America's last space shuttle mission landed at Cape Canaveral. With no replacement manned space capability available or even under construction, the future of America's manned space program is shaky at best. The next generation of manned vehicles on the drawing board is not in the hands of NASA, but in those of private companies. A new large-scale NASA rocket has been proposed, but future funding is far from certain, especially given America's acute public debt problem.

It's not just the astronauts who are affected by NASA's decline, it is the thousands of NASA workers who support them and the tens of thousands of government aerospace contractors who build, maintain and operate their systems. All of these people have been paid handsomely for decades, much like their cousins in the main branches of the military industrial complex.

In the Washington DC labor market, technology jobs for companies doing contract work for NASA and the military are widely known for being well paid, requiring fewer hours than commercial employment, and getting very, very little work done. For the unmotivated worker, it has long been a pretty cushy deal.

This system is under pressure as budget cuts hit not just NASA but all branches of the Defense Department. Fifty years ago, and just a few months before the first American manned space mission, a retiring President Eisenhower warned about the rise of the military industrial complex: "[W]e must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex."(1)

With the Cold War and the Space Race gone, the biggest aerospace and weapons projects have long since ceased to be useful to the country. They are now perpetuated by their own constituency -- companies and workers with a special interest in lobby Congress to keep the gravy train going. This is precisely the kind of unwarranted influence that Eisenhower warned against.

Thankfully, today's budget battles means that these programs, and the people living off them, are facing real decline. Lockheed Martin announced voluntary layoffs of $6,500 employees last week, and other firms who support NASA and the Defense Department like Raytheon and General Dynamics are consolidating as well.(1)

This is long overdue. While it is true that the lion's share of America's future budget problem comes from social spending on government pensions and health care, much of the debt run up in the past -- particularly over the past decade -- has been from the military industrial complex. NASA was once the crown jewel in this complex -- tens of billions of dollars were spent on its Apollo moon program (hundreds of billions counting inflation) with nothing more to show for it than lunar rocks. After rising to such riches, NASA and its contactors are being hit first and hardest. With America entering a long period of government austerity, let's hope they aren't the last.

Related Web Columns:

The Cheapest Rocket, June 22, 2004

A Bloated Approach
The Real Reason to End the Shuttle Program
, May 13, 2003

An Acceptable Risk
The Oxymoron of Safe Space Travel
, February 4, 2003

An Astronomical Failure, October 31, 2000

The $50 Million Carnival Ride, October 6, 1998


1. Washington Post, Defense-Industry Career Track Looking Less Certain, July 26, 2011