Taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for exoplanets and supercolliders

Ross Marchand

December 11, 2017

This article originally appeared in The Washington Examiner on December 11, 2017

Discoveries beyond the solar system are exciting, so long as the price tag remains hidden from the public view.

NASA recently released a technical/cost analysis on their ambitious Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) to little fanfare. WFRIST, designed to provide a high-resolution mapping of the universe and explore planets outside our solar system (exoplanets), had its cost originally pegged at $3.2 billion. Now, the cost is expected to be around $4 billion due to the planned “technological demonstration” of expensive coronagraph equipment. And $4 billion may be low considering the inevitable cost overruns with any government project.

The cost escalation isn’t exactly shocking; NASA was warned repeatedly by the National Academy of Science that piggybacking an experiment onto a flagship mission would increase costs astronomically. The scathing report, which criticized these preventable overruns and dysfunctional governance, was little surprise to observers familiar with NASA’s long history of cost overruns and schedule delays. NASA’s habit of 20 percent-plus overruns and questionable missions should be an easy target for lawmakers ramping up scrutiny on waste and abuse throughout the federal government.
But instead of scaling back the size and scope of NASA, Congress has elected to merely shift its focus from orbital data collection (ie. monitoring global warming) to planetary science. Even deficit hawks traditionally critical of large federal spending initiatives are fine with bankrolling the discovery of other worlds to the tune of billions of dollars. Traditionally, the justification used for “getting there first” was a form of space nationalism: just think of all the prestige that came to America after the moon landing. Sure, and there will inevitably be a similar amount of international gushing for the country that plants their flag in the perchlorate-laden Martian soil.
Even assuming that the popularity bounce attained by reaching Mars is worth the hundreds of billions of dollars that such an endeavor would cost, the same logic surely doesn’t apply to exoplanets. The Kepler space telescope, for instance, recently discovered twenty exoplanets that may be in the “habitable zone,” the Goldilocks distance from a right-sized sun that results in the optimal climate for life. But news of these discoveries didn’t catch on like wildfire. Safe to say, the vast majority of the global public wasn’t aware that it was NASA scientists who made that discovery instead of the Chinese scientists who have been banned from exoplanet conferences by NASA in the past.
Casting aside spurious space nationalism leaves one remaining justification: “it’s interesting.” It’s hard to deny that there’s a widespread craving to explore distant worlds, and even annual releases of Star Wars films can only whet the public appetite for so long. But presuming that there is such a widespread interest in finding Earth-like planets in distant galaxies, there should be enough private funding to achieve that goal. A look into the history of space exploration suggests that private foundations can do some of the heavy lifting if given the chance.
The Palomar Observatory, complete with the Hale Telescope, was constructed with a $6 million ($108 million today) grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The telescope was the largest in the world until 1976, discovered numerous dwarf planets in our solar system and aided in the discovery of exoplanets. Advocates of a hefty federal footprint, though, rightly point out that private coffers have been depleted trying to furnish new improvements onto existing scientific instruments.

Cyclotron technology, which was mainly funded by private foundations in the study nuclear physics, gave way to the Superconducting Super Collider project proposed thirty years ago. This gargantuan undertaking was out of reach for the private foundations that forked over the initial funding toward particle acceleration. But federal undertakings have issues of their own, and administrative bloat ballooned the price tag from $4.4 billion to $9 billion by 1993. Congress finally killed the project, and America lost its chance to become the global leader in particle physics.

But groundbreaking research didn’t die with Congress’s decision to axe the project. Particle physics research mainly shifted to Europe, with the main onus of discovery shifted to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). CERN’s affiliated laboratory has continued to expand over the years, and the addition of the Large Hadron Collider in 2008 led to the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

While completing the American Supercollider may have accelerated the discovery and related breakthroughs, it makes little practical difference that European scientists spearheaded the discovery instead of American ones. Nuclear physicists around the world have access to CERN’s research, and Europe has no monopoly on any future innovations that come from these discoveries. American taxpayers, however, were saved from a multi-billion dollar boondoggle that would have inevitably required expensive additions to remain in operation.

Whether for planetary exploration or nuclear physics, American taxpayers needn’t always bear the cost. A history of exciting discoveries suggests that private foundations and foreign governments will gladly foot the bill for telescopes and colliders. American prestige is important, but Americans should not be bilked endlessly so that a few more native researchers receive a few more citations.