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A Case for Cutting NASA's Budget

Criticism of our space program is overdue. In the last eight fiscal years the United States has spent more than $30 billion on it-not $20 billion in 10 years, as President Johnson maintains. We have made more than 500 space launches, our astronauts have completed more than 1,300 man-orbits around the earth, we can now realistically assess the worth of manned space flight. Finally, Project Apollo's termination in 1969-1970 makes mandatory a sharp drop in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget. No agency likes to get less than it got last year from Congress, and NASA is very Parkinsonian in this respect. NASA officials defend their budget as though it should remain indefinitely at a $5 billion annual level. To sustain a high budget level NASA has inflated its appropriation request, the biggest chunk of the inflation being the Apollo Applications program. In my opinion this program lacks sound scientific and technical justification, though it does have political significance in an election year.

The Apollo Applications program ($500 million a year) involves the orbiting of huge satellites, three-man crews at first and then six-man crew missions. It thus comes into direct competition with the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program of the Air Force. This senseless duplication of effort needs to be stopped. I have seen no real evidence justifying the Saturn V Workshop or, for that matter, any NASA manned missions once the lunar venture is successful.

The real basis of congressional support for manned space ventures beyond Apollo is presumably national security, but there's more to it than that. For example, in 1963 NASA funds awarded to California totaled $2.2 billion and accounted for 100,000 employees in that state. This year the NASA administrative operations amount to $671 million and involve seven centers each having a budget of more than $67 million. Cutbacks hurt politically. Nevertheless, since the role of man in space is so undefined, I believe that after Apollo, manned space flight should be assigned to the US Air Force, and that NASA's budget be lowered to $1.5 billion per year.

Casting about for some means of selling a larger budget, NASA has taken to playing up the dollars and cents value of the space program. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences has just released a report titled "Space Applications Summer Study, Interim Report' which states:

"Our first general conclusion is that the potential economic benefits to our society from space systems are enormous. They may amount to billions of dollars per year to many diverse elements of our industry and commerce and thus to the public."

General B. A. Schriever, in the course of his Goddard lecture on March 4, 1968 predicted: "This nation is on the verge of receiving an annual return larger than its annual investment in space. And, within the next decade, these returns should be several times our annual investment."

Dr. Wernher von Braun forecast in Technology Week (Jan. 23, 1967): "Our surveys indicate that gains up to $83 billion a year can soon be available to humanity through knowledge spawned from space research."

Finally, President Johnson, visiting the Saturn V assembly facility at Michoud, Louisiana, on Dec. 12, 1967, said: "We have invested some $20 billion in the past 10 years. But the value to our nation of this $20 billion and this successful space program may be millions of times greater than the investment we made." [Italics added.]

Now if any of these four optimistic estimates is even remotely correct, industry should be ready and willing to invest its own funds in such a lucrative undertaking. We can do away with further federal subsidy of space technology. With the precedent of the Satellite Communications Act of 1962 in mind, the Congress should establish a corporation to promote and exploit the peacetime applications of space technology. A Space Systems Applications Corporation should be set up and financed through a stock issue, a substantial fraction of the total shares to be allocated to aerospace companies. Public ownership would be encouraged through the usual brokerage procedures. SSAC would operate along the lines of ComSat, even to the extent of cooperative ventures, but it would confine itself to applications of orbital surveillance of the earth's land-air-ocean surface. These would include applications in the fields of agriculture, water resources, mineral resources, commercial marine life, meteorology, mapping and navigation. Because of the US government's financing of research and development in these fields to date, SSAC would be .enjoined to provide its services to the federal government on a cost-reimbursable basis.

Had President Kennedy been confronted in 1961 with a choice--sending men to the moon or bringing relief to the ghettoes--I think he would have postponed the Apollo project. Today we still have a choice. A firm decision on post-Apollo, at a saving of $3 billion per year, could signal a new order of national priorities. Surely, people in the ghetto must view manned and orbital flight as space-larking.

By Ralph E. Lapp