The federal government, more than $16 trillion in debt, saw fit to send the space shuttle Endeavour on a final joyride before it lands in a museum. Riding a Boeing 747, the shuttle’s farewell tour of California included two aerial laps around the state capitol in Sacramento. Fans were snapping pictures of a publicity stunt for NASA, another money-hungry federal agency. Charges of waste were few, but that was not always the case.
“We’re putting a truck up in the sky and we’re being told this is a second coming. I think this is being grossly oversold.” That was Senator William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat, when the original shuttle first flew in 1981.
NASA sold the shuttle to Congress as a way to make space flight cheap and frequent, about one flight per week. The actual rate was one-tenth of that, according to Roger Pielke Jr., science policy expert at the University of Colorado. According to Pielke, each flight cost $1.5 billion, and total costs of the shuttle program are $196.5 billion. So it wasn’t cheap either.
Proxmire, who died in 2005, was right that the program was expensive and oversold but the shuttle wasn’t his only concern. In its obituary, the New York Times noted that the Democrat was a maverick who “crusaded against government waste.” In fact, he gave out Golden Fleece Awards for such frivolous projects as: the National Science Foundation in 1975 for spending $84,000 to learn why people fall in love; the National Institute for Mental Health, for spending $97,000 to study what went on in a Peruvian brothel; $57,800 by the FAA on a study of the physical measurements of 432 airline stewardesses; $27,000 by the Justice Department to determine why prisoners wanted to get out of jail; and $3,000 by the Pentagon to study if military personnel should carry umbrellas in the rain.
The shuttle farewell flight would doubtless have bagged a Golden Fleece Award. So perhaps would the GSA for handing out bonuses to employees under fire for misconduct. Maybe Congress would get one for creating new and redundant federal agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Without any doubt, Congress needs more mavericks willing to crusade against government waste.