If memory serves, my family was sitting around after dinner one evening back during the W. Bush years, and the subject of space exploration came up. The context, I believe, was that the President’s Moon base and manned Mars mission proposal had been publicized not too long beforehand. One of my aunts wanted to know what we thought of the proposal. The ensuing discussion boiled down to the two positions that always seem to come up when human exploration of space is discussed by anyone: (1) manned space exploration is cool, is cheap relative to various other budget items, and usually invents a bunch of useful technology along the way, and (2) the manned space program is billions of dollars we could be spending to try and solve all our very real and immediate problems here on the homeworld. I was backing position #1, but my memory is that I was a bit outnumbered and definitely out-articulated1.
Of course, it became clear the President’s proposal was largely meant to sound dramatic and ambitious rather than actually be dramatic and ambitious. No wonder, given what else was going on in January 20042. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget did get a mild bump in inflation-adjusted dollars during the Bush presidency (about 15% over the course of eight years), but not near the kind of investment that would be needed for the task3. President Barack Obama’s re-focus of the projects dropped the Moon base, but kept the manned Mars mission on the distant horizon (2030’s). I was always a little ambivalent about the Moon base – sort of a we’ve-already-been-there thing – but the extended timeline of our next great manned mission, combined with the not-so-selective austerity measures taken by Congress, has allowed NASA’s budget to slowly shrink both in current and inflation-adjusted dollars. I argued/am-arguing that this is a bad thing. As for why, and why we shouldn’t just pile NASA’s money into aid programs and the like, here are a couple of reasons.
One, NASA is cheap4. About one half of one penny of every tax dollar to pay for the entire organization. This amounts to about $18 billion out of the $3.5 trillion annual federal budget. 12% of the budget goes to “safety net” programs, not including Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. A weirdly unpopular 1% of our federal budget goes to non-security-related foreign aid. So by a pretty conservative estimate, NASA gets $1 to every $26 spent on the betterment of our fellow (pre-dominantly American) humans. If one slices and dices further, the ratio becomes even larger. Large chunks of Social Security/Medicaid/Medicare are clearly meant to prevent poverty and human suffering. If it is just the manned space exploration part of NASA’s mission that is the problem, then the ratio goes up again. I’m not discounting the value of spending money on aid programs, far from it, but perhaps there are better places in the federal budget to go looking for funds than NASA5. As for how much to spend on NASA, 1% is a nice, admittedly arbitrary ballpark figure that Neil deGrasse Tyson recently mentioned to Congress. A whole lot can get done for that kind of money.
Two, NASA is valuable. Personally, I think the idea of sending humans flying through the passively hostile emptiness of space to visit (and perhaps stay in the future) other astronomical objects is of intrinsic value. Few things are as difficult a task or as inspiring an achievement. In more practical terms, NASA projects and research have a tendency to spawn useful technologies. The best tasting of these: freeze-dried (Space) ice cream6. These projects also produce a wealth of fundamental science, which can be interpreted as science for science’s sake (enough justification for me) or perhaps a little more optimistically as knowledge about our universe that might change our world 20+ years from now. Beyond these reasons, I see manned space flight as crucial to our survival as a species. This is meant both directly (“Well, there’s an asteroid the diameter of Texas headed this way and no Bruce Willis to take care of it. Guess we should’ve colonized Titan after all. Oops.”) and indirectly (“Sorry Mr. President, but spending half a trillion dollars on the new F-885 fighter/bomber didn’t poll as well as spending that money on terra-forming Mars. Fortunately the Chinese and the Russians had the same problem, so we should be ok.”7).
At a more basic level, and this gets back to the intrinsic value part of my point, it would be a terrible shame to ‘see’ all of these other worlds, all the myriad of strange and beautiful things that clever astronomers have enabled us to observe, and never go to any of them. It’s akin to continually looking at a map, observing all the lovely towns, roads, rivers, mountains, oceans, and shorelines, then folding the map up, popping it back in the glove compartment, and turning the car toward home.
1 “But, but, uh, SPACE! It’s awesome. And our descendants could be Jean-Luc-Picard-ish.”
2 We may have been fighting a couple of wars, and there may have been an election ‘coming up’ by USA standards.
3 There is an argument to be made that sufficient funding (in aggregate) was in NASA’s budget already, but this supposes a flexibility that NASA might have had but did not want to have. The simple version is that, yeah sure, we might have been able to do the Moon base and manned Mars mission over a reasonable timeframe, but at the expense of cancelling or delaying pretty much everything else NASA had previously been tasked with doing.
4 Yes of course I mean this in relative terms.
5 For some insight into where the money goes, and thus where it might come from for NASA and and other worthy programs, check out the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
6 Sadly and contrary to popular belief, Tang and Velcro, among other items, were not invented by NASA scientists. For various actual technologies, check out the NASA Spinoff website. The 1977 edition has bonus sideburns and moustaches in the photos.
7 I can fantasize, right?