My Visit to NASA
By David Henderson
Every fall quarter I teach an economics class to Executive MBA students by distance learning. For the first time, we have civilians in the program–in this case 5 students from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
When I teach 5 or more students in one location, I like to go there once in the quarter and teach in person. So, knowing that I would be in Dallas on Tuesday, I arranged to teach in Houston and broadcast from there on Wednesday.
Afterward, we all went out to dinner and, not surprisingly, the discussion turned to how to fund space exploration. I thought I had earned enough of their trust that I cautiously raised an issue. I told them that I remembered David Friedman having written about selling the moon rocks to raise funds for the Apollo program and that I thought it was a good idea. I thought I would get a lot of push-back but one of the students nodded her head in agreement. [I’ve asked her permission to mention her reaction.]
One of the other students then said, “I like that idea.” He went on to advocate selling corporate sponsorships, advertising, etc. to help defray the cost. He said, “Picture a rocket going up into space with a big Coca-Cola or Nike logo on the side.” I agreed with him that that made sense and I was delighted that he, a NASA employee who depended on taxpayer funding, had gone beyond what I advocated.
When I got back, I checked David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom, written in 1973, and I found I had remembered correctly but incompletely. Remember in what follows to adjust for inflation and real growth in the U.S. economy in the last 39 years. In a short chapter titled, “What Might Have Been,” David writes:
Most conservatives seem now to have accepted, and even embraced, the space program and with it the idea that the exploration of space can only be achieved by government. That idea is false. If had not been in such a hurry, we not only could have landed a man on the moon, we could have done it at a profit.
How? Perhaps as a television spectacular. The moon landing alone had an audience of 400 million. If pay TV were legal, that huge audience could have been charged several billion dollars for the series of shows leading up to, including, and following the landing. If the average viewer watched, altogether, twenty hours of Apollo programs, that would be about twenty-five cents an hour for the greatest show off earth.
After the landing everyone from Columbia Gas to Stouffers Foods tried to claim the credit. They could have been charged for the privilege. America’s annual expenditure on advertising is about $20 billion. What company wouldn’t give 10 percent of its advertising budget to be part of the biggest news story since the crucifixion?
The moon rocks, after being studied, could have been auctioned off. So could stamps cancelled on the moon. The astronauts could have staked out a modest territorial claim to everything within a hundred miles of the landing site and sold it. What would you pay for legal title to an acre of the moon? How about billboards on the moon–with a small freight and installation charge?