We have just passed the first aniversary of the rover Spirit's landing on Mars. Spirit and its twin Opportunity were designed to function for 90 days; yet both are still going strong, with no end in sight. I am particularly happy with the tremendous success of the Mars '04 mission, since a member of my family was on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that worked the mission. In fact, he played a big part in finding and correcting the memory bug that threatened to derail the mission in its first few weeks. But enough kvelling…
My support for JPL may seem odd, given that in many ways I tend toward Libertarianism. How can I reconcile my general views of small government and free-market capitalism, with a government-sponsored organization that uses our tax-dollars (well, your tax-dollars, unfortunately) to fund costly projects which boil down to taking machinery worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and shooting it up into space on rockets?
To be honest, this specific program is relatively easy to defend. JPL is proud to say that it is the only branch of NASA that pays for itself, by means of joint projects with commercial businesses which generate a lot of money for the economy. But that avoids the real issue. The real issue is that governments have certain capabilities that private companies lack, which allow them to do things that most businesses cannot do.
Because governments have access to vast resources and wealth (collected from the people, to be sure), they can bring together talent and skill that would dwarf anything the private-sector can do. Consider the Manhattan Project, the greatest collection of physicists and engineers that the world had ever seen.
Governments have no need to return a profit, which is usually a bad thing, but it also allows them to take on tasks that would provide immeasurable benefits to the state, but would return no profits in any conceivable timeframe. Virtually all roads, highways, and sewers in the world are built by governments; the few privately-owned roads that exist would be useless without the massive network of public roads connected to it. The many research-programs run by the government, such as DARPA or the space-program, have all thrown off innovations which have revolutionized society. The Internet was created by DARPA. The first computers were built to count the U.S. census. Miniature computer-chips were first developed for the NASA space-missions. GPS was developed for the military.
What we are seeing now with the sudden emergence of private sub-orbital craft, such as Burt Rutan's "Space Ship One," is analogous to the beginnings of the airplane industry. But it is worth remembering that the first party to show interest in the Wright Brothers' creation was the United States military. Similarly, NASA needed to demonstrate that space-flight was possible before any private parties could even consider investing the massive sums and taking the significant risks that space-flight requires.
Essentially, what I believe is that governments should only be involved in a particular activity if they can do it better than private industry, for inherent structural reasons. Long-range research or large-scale endeavors without an obvious commercial payoff seem to be part of those activities. (The only similar project in the private sector that I can think of is Bell Labs, formerly owned by AT&T; since they were spun off with Lucent, the direction of their research was ruthlessly redirected into projects with immediate commercial applications, and the world was dimmed thereby.)
Besides, it would take a truly unimaginative libertarian to decry the space program as being out of the proper purview of government. Granted, such idiocies as the International Space Station deserve to be mothballed; but there will come a day in the not-so-distant future when mankind shall set foot on Mars; and that day is immeasurably closer on account of government funding. Or rather, on account of the collective will and ingenuity of the American people, united behind a dream of exploring the stars. There is poetry in that.