Space: A Waste?

NASA Facebook fans are a chatty bunch. We post something of interest going on at NASA. Fans talk about it. They like it. They dislike it. They have an idea for how to change it. But, for the most part, they’re supportive of our efforts. It is, after all, a “fan” page.

Lately I’ve noticed a few unhappy folks who post little “This is a waste of time” zingers. I really find it fascinating. If the information we’re posting is a waste of their time, why do they spend time on the NASA fan page?

Timbuktu Credit/NASA

Timbuktu Credit/NASA

I’m intrigued by the “waste of time” mentality.

Ok, I admit it. I’ve had similar thoughts about meetings or work products I considered a waste of my time. After all, I work for Uncle Sam…Big Brother…the Feds. I find I’m most frustrated when my time is expended against my willI wouldn’t dream of posting my time-waster list…well, maybe I might. 😉

Back to the point. When someone writes “This is a waste of time” on NASA’s Facebook wall about the Timbuktu image above, I have to wonder…as compared to what? Their frame of reference would be so telling. Wouldn’t it? For instance:

  • Reading a book is a waste of time when you could be fishing.
  • Fishing is a waste of time when you could be working.
  • Working is such a waste of time when you could be spending time with family.
  • Family time is such a waste when you could be traveling.
  • Traveling is such a waste of time when you could be volunteering.
  • Volunteering is such a waste of time when you could be making money to donate.

Look at the context in these examples. One choice is pitted against another. We tend to do that, don’t we?

Don’t we make judgments about choices others make based on our own value-based choices?

Here’s what I notice: we humans often expect others to share our views and values. If they don’t, we like to cast them as our enemy. We’re good. They’re bad. That simple.

But really, it’s not simple at all. Just because I value something doesn’t mean you have to value it too. Yes, I’d LOVE everyone to agree with me on EVERYthing. But, I’m no less valid in my choices or opinions than you are in yours. (You’re probably shaking your head right now, thinking how I’m idealistic and unrealistic I am.  You won’t be the first to think it.) Hear what I’m saying.

Life is all about balance.

We each bring to the table different and unique attributes for the greater whole. Synergy! The same goes for NASA. So, let’s explore how the federal government works, shall we?

Civics 101: The government exists to provide the public good. We fill the gap between:

  1. the needs of the common man, and
  2. profitably ventures attractive to commercial entities.

The pursuit of knowledge (i.e. NASA endeavors or basic science) isn’t profitable. But once we pursue the unknown, gain knowledge, and share what we’ve learned, THEN the opportunity exists for someone to take it and run all the way to the bank.

For instance, what we’re learning about humans existing in long-duration space onboard Space Station may help address the debilitating effects of osteoporosis on here on Earth. A drug company MAY use this information to manufacture and sell an “antidote” to brittle bones.  Yay for them!

We discover knowledge that leads to a product that meets a need someone is willing to pay for. Or, IF the need is worthy and a commercial entity can’t make a profit, we’re back to the government providing it. The cycle circles back on itself.

Society = balance of public good + commerce.

In reality, the argument boils down to managing the appropriate balance among the nations’ priorities to best bring about public good.

Civics 101, Part 2: The White House and Congress determine the nation’s priorities.

  1. The White House sets the agenda, and
  2. Congress holds the purse strings.

NASA receives less than 1% of the federal budget. Even if I do say so myself, we accomplish aMAZing feats with that partial penny on every dollar given us by Congress.

What can YOU do with less than a penny?

So back to the question, is space a waste? Again I ask: as compared to what?

Personally, I feel the time and energy I spend exploring unknown places or books or foods or experiences is never wasted. Every time I learn something new, I know more than I did the moment before. Even when the experiences are painful, I’m still wiser than before. Can that knowledge ever be wasted?

What if I share what I learned with you, and it:

  • saves you time,
  • streamlines your effort,
  • prevents harm, or
  • gives you insight on places or people you’ll never see?

What we discover at NASA changes textbooks! Generations upon generations of humans will benefit from the sacrifice our nation made to fund the space program, in an effort to learn what we don’t know. In the meantime, our government also took care of housing for the homeless, education for students, subsidies for farmers, benefits for veterans, security of our borders, and so much more. We can debate the balance of funds distributed, but it was ALL in an effort to bring about the public good…as determined by the White House and Congress.

Civics 101, Part 3: Citizens, if you disagree with how your tax dollars are spent, you speak loudest through your right to vote (as opposed to a fan page on the internet).

In the meantime, I’ll see you on Facebook! 😀

Crosspost on openNASA.


Filed under culture, federal government, NASA, OpenNASA, space

7 responses to “Space: A Waste?

  1. brobof

    “The government exists to provide the public good.”
    If only that were true. Governments (worldwide) exist to ensure that the ruling elites… remain the ruling elites. They do the bare minimum for the public good whilst trousering as much cash as they can in the process.
    We have a saying in this country “Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.” (At least under a totalitarian dictatorship you know you are being oppressed:)
    But hopefully all that will change with Charles and Lori in charge!
    I see “Interesting times” ahead for NASA…

    • bethbeck

      I think individuals can corrupt organizations — whether government or private. Sad, but true. Best we can do is be aware and speak out. I, too, look forward to our “interesting times ahead” as you say.

  2. A Taxpayer


    I think you need to re-examine your Civics 101, Part 1 section of your post. You have fallen for the public goods fallacy in justifying government involvement in research (what you call “pursuit of knowledge”).

    Specifically, you assume that the government should deliver public goods because it is somehow wiser and more altruistic than private companies driven by short-term profit and self-centered motivations.

    This is a fallacy.

    1) It assumes that government is moved by a force somehow outside of the public and therefore more altruistic — it is not. Profit is not evil and egoism, care for self, is not the opposite of altruism, care for others.

    2) It assumes that the government considers the longer term — which it doesn’t. In fact, the government’s timeline is simply the time to the next election.

    3) It assumes that the government is using its own resources — which it doesn’t. The government uses resources that it acquires through monopoly of the use force. It is a core tenet of the Constitution that the size of the government should be strictly limited to minimize this use of force. A civilian space agency is not called for in the Constitution.

    Thanks for you interesting post.

    A Taxpayer

    • bethbeck

      I didn’t say the government is the “only” entity to provide research. Nor did I say that “Profit” was bad. I don’t believe the government is wiser or more altruistic. Only that the government will fill the gap between a “public need” that doesn’t interest a commercial entity. It’s true that political forces within the government are more interested in short-term election mentality. But I speak from experience that government plans long-term. We have 10-year budget planning cycles. We forecast programs far into the future. At NASA, specifically, we plan for generations. We have to. Space Station was one of the first projects I worked on in 1986 when I came to NASA, and they’d been working on it long before I arrived. We’re just now completing assembly. I’ve been at NASA for 25 years.

      No, the Constitution does not call for a civilian space agency. But it does call for representation by the people. The representatives of the people drafted the 1958 Space Act, which governs what we can and can’t do.

      The government (my employer) only has funding provided by taxes that have been allocated by the tax payers’ representatives, Congress. They make the rules, they provide the funding, they tell us how to follow the rules. You, the tax payer, can tell them what you think. And you should. That’s all part of the process.

      Have I fallen for the “public good fallacy,” as you put it? Yes and no. I’ve fallen HARD for the public good. I am, after all, a public servant. My job is to serve the tax payer, as interpreted by your representatives in Congress. Both my degrees are in the study of the public good, really. Do I believe it’s a fallacy. No. Absolutely not. But yes, we’ve been known to corrupt justice and be seduced by power. Human work in the government…and in private industry. Humans have been know to make mistakes.

      Thanks for your interesting comments. We may not agree, but the conversation is always a good starting point. 🙂

      • A Taxpayer


        The government (and NASA) may plan for generations, but the plan changes after every election. So you are kidding yourself if you think otherwise. Having worked on the Shuttle and Station you know this first hand.

        You choose to allocate resources via central planning and coercive acquisition of resources for projects outside the enumerated powers of the federal government ( This is immoral. Only a free market, where resources are provided willingly by their owners, can allocate resources effectively and in an amoral (neither good nor bad) way.

        You have fallen hard for your version of what is the public good. In reality, you are serving your own self-interest — which isn’t by itself bad. It’s just that you have used the coercive force of the federal government to do it — which is bad.

        Thanks again.

        A Taxpayer

  3. bethbeck

    Interesting take on the subject. Hmmm, coercive force? I wish I had some. Try working for the government. Many will tell you how powerLESS they feel on the job. 😉

    Here’s the point I was making in this post:
    “Don’t we make judgments about choices others make based on our own value-based choices?”

    We simply have different views on the role of government. As a student of government, I may not always agree with its implementation, but I do buy the concept. Yep. I fell hard.

    • A Taxpayer

      As a student of government you will understand this then:

      “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

      – George Washington.

      Consider that as you decide how to, as you put it, “…debate the balance of funds distributed.”

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