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Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.
Like many kids, I was once captivated by all things space. I took out every book on space from the school library. I did a book report on astronaut Sally Ride. I wanted to be an astronaut myself.
Later, I studied astronomy and physics and even interned at the Hubble Space Telescope program in the 1990s, back when that was the biggest, newest telescope around.
So when I read about the James Webb Space Telescope, able to see 13.5 billion years back in time, almost to the beginning of the universe, I’m awed. This remarkable machine enables us to witness the births of stars and planets and begin to unravel some of the most awe-inspiring mysteries of our universe.
When I grew up, I became not an astronomer or an astronaut but a military budget analyst. So I chuckled when I read that the price tag for this marvel — which ultimately ran $10.8 billion over 24 years — nearly resulted in its cancellation a decade ago.
Over 2 1/2 decades, that’s not even a scratch on the surface of our federal budget. For comparison, our military budget is shaping up to be almost $850 billion next year alone — 85 times the lifetime cost of the Webb telescope for just one year.
In fact, the $10 billion for Webb is roughly the same amount the Pentagon spends every single year to purchase new F-35 jet fighters.
But while the telescope unfolded majestically according to plan, a wonder of modern engineering, the F-35 has seen one problem after another, having spontaneously caught fire at least three times. And yet just this July, news broke that the Pentagon is reaching a deal with F-35 maker Lockheed Martin to buy more of the planes at a cost of $30 billion.
Imagine the scandal if the $10 billion Webb telescope had failed to work. Now imagine that scandal every year, in the shape of an F-35 that is the subject of continued revelations of failure — and yet we keep spending more and more.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives just voted to add an extra $37 billion — nearly four times the lifetime cost of the Webb telescope — to the Pentagon budget. Lawmakers even ignored the testimony of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said that the requested budget — already an astonishing $813 billion — was enough to meet the nation’s security needs.
When the Senate considers the military budget, senators will have to decide whether to move forward with $45 billion in additions that members of the Senate Armed Services Committee piled onto the Pentagon’s request.
The reasons for this are simple: Pentagon contractors with too much power, who are too cozy with important members of Congress, and a misplaced obsession among many in Congress with always spending more on the military. It’s the one area where many in Congress measure a job well done by how much more money they can spend.
The entire Pentagon story is similar. The United States has more than 750 military installations around the world. We spent the first 20 years of this century at war — even after the end of the longest active war in our history, our budget for war-making is still climbing higher.
None of this seems to have made the world any safer — and unlike the Webb telescope, it’s not very inspiring, either.
This nation needs a lot of things that cost money. We need a better health care system. We need a clean energy transition. We need long-term solutions to poverty and economic insecurity.
For the annual cost of one fighter jet, we’re unlocking mysteries of the universe. Now imagine what marvels we could do here on Earth if we liberated those bigger investments from our hungry, bloated war machine.