Emily LakdawallaDec 30, 2011

What is space exploration worth?

In the hours after Curiosity launched last month, there were more than a few people questioning the worth of spending two and a half billion dollars to launch a spacecraft to Mars. This is absolutely a fair question to ask. It's important to place the question in context, because most people in the general public think NASA gets a much larger fraction of the U.S. budget than it actually does (people tend to think it gets five or even 15 or 20 percent of the budget, when the actual number is about 0.4 percent).

Even though NASA is not as large a part of the budget as people think it is, it's irrefutable that $2,500,000,000 (the approximate total cost of Curiosity through its primary mission) or $17,800,000,000 (the fiscal year 2012 budget for all of NASA) is a lot of money that could pay for lots of other worthwhile things. I wondered how it compared to other discretionary expenses, so I checked. The 2012 budget for federal cultural grants agencies -- things like the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian, and so on -- totals a little over $1,250,000,000, or about half the cost of the Curiosity mission. The National Park Service gets $2,200,000,000 out of the Department of Interior's total $12,000,000,000 budget. NASA has a relatively big budget.

Obviously, I believe NASA is worth the money. But it's such a lot of money that it's difficult to explain briefly why it's worth it. Here's what I think: investing in NASA makes us smarter, improves our lives, and increases our capability to overcome technological challenges. Even more important, though, are the intangible benefits of pride, respect from other nations, respect for our place in the universe, and hope for a future in which we can accomplish even greater things. In this post I'm going to explain why I think these things. This will be an unusually U.S.-centric post for me, but many of the ideas in it apply to other spacefaring nations.

First, there are some immediate practical benefits to spending on space exploration. Billions of dollars spent on NASA are not crateloads of cash loaded onto a rocket and shot into space. The high costs are not associated (entirely) with the materials that leave Earth. Instead, they're associated with the technical challenges of building machines to rigorous specifications. To meet those technical challenges, we need lots of very smart engineers, and those engineers are developing all kinds of new technologies. Many of those new technologies can be turned to commercial uses, providing a direct economic benefit and making America one of the few nations in the world capable of revolutionary technological innovation. NASA has a website devoted to spinoff technologies; there's a lot more than just Velcro and Tang. NASA technologies have made their way into medical, architectural, military, automotive, and artistic applications, just to name a few.

Just as important, the brains capable of all that innovation remain here on Earth, ready to develop more valuable, new ideas. Not every engineer at a NASA center is building scientific spacecraft; they work for commercial clients and the military, too, innovating new solutions to practical problems here on Earth. NASA technologies and space industry engineers make our lives better and give America economic power.

All of that is good but I do wonder what an economic analysis of the return on our investment would show. I do not know (can anybody point me to a paper?) but my working hypothesis would be that we don't get 18 billion dollars' worth of direct economic benefit annually from our 18-billion-dollar investment. [EDIT: Barbara Cohen pointed me to an excellent NASA HQ library resource on measuring the return on investment in NASA, and said that estimates of ROI in NASA range from 1:1 to 9:1, much larger than I had thought..]

That's where we get to the intangibles: pride, respect, and hope. Pride is complicated; there's good pride and there's bad pride. The good kind of pride is the kind that you feel when you achieve something, and it scales with the challenge inherent in your achievement. When I stand with thousands of others and watch a great rocket soar on that parabolic arc into the sky, carrying with it a relatively tiny, almost unimaginably complex package that embodies more than ten years' worth of hard work of more thousands of skilled people, I feel immense pride that my country can do such difficult things. I didn't build that rover, or that rocket, but my team did.

It's a good feeling, but why is that important? If you are proud of what you do, and what you can do, you have self-respect. And if you can accomplish such great things, you can earn the respect of others. There is a lot of value in respect. We as a nation have lost a lot of respect in recent years, and with that loss of respect has come a loss of political power and a reduction in our capability to lead other nations into actions that are compatible with our interests. Our space program is one of the things that makes us great, that sets us far apart from other productive countries, that makes us respectable, that makes our advice worth listening to. I don't really know how to put a value on that, but I feel comfortable saying that the value of that respect must be measured in many billions of dollars. There's a story about physicist Robert Rathburn Wilson testifying to Congress, who was asked by a senator: is a large science project (which became Fermilab) connected with the security of our country? The response: "It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending." *

Another intangible benefit of space exploration is hope. "Hope" became a politically charged word in our last election, and that's too bad, because it's so important. Hope and confidence that the future will be better than the present have always been an important driver of American growth. Hope is what brought the first colonists to American shores, and hope is what continues to bring immigrants to the United States today. Hope for the future makes us want to contribute to the greater good, while lack of hope makes us selfish and defensive. Space exploration, especially human space exploration, has always been coupled to visions of a future filled with technological wonders, breathtaking vistas, and a home world more advanced than the one we live on now. We can't make all of those visions come true, but the ones we can achieve through our toil will make our children's lives better than ours.

Visions of being part of that better world filled with better things and unimagined wonders are what drive children into studying science and technology. Not every kid who imagines herself an astronaut is going to walk on Mars some day, or captain an interstellar spaceship. But by following those dreams, she will develop the mind and skills needed to keep advancing our technological capability and maintain our economic standing.

There's a final wildcard reason why I think it's important to explore space. We don't know what we're going to find until we get out there. We don't know yet what we don't know. What are we going to discover out there that will be important or valuable out there someday? Maybe nothing. Maybe something that will change everything. Once people have met their basic needs -- food, shelter, security -- they look outward, look for something more, hope for something even better somewhere out there, seek answers to the question of how we got here in the first place, and wonder whether we're the only ones here. It's just the way we are. We're curious. Of course, just because curiosity is natural doesn't mean it's good. It's natural for humans to commit violence, too, and that's usually not good. And in fact curiosity, and messing with the unknown, don't always pay off. Not infrequently it results in disaster for the explorers. But occasionally, we find treasure, literally or figuratively. It was a willingness to probe the unknown in the uncertain hope that we'd find something better that led the first Europeans to America, and look at what we are now. Will our push into the solar system accomplish the same thing? Who knows? But we'll never know if we don't try.

Happy new year, everybody. May 2012 be filled with wondrous discoveries and delightfully puzzling new questions.

Curiosity launches on an Atlas V
Curiosity launches on an Atlas V On Saturday, November 26 at 10:02 ET (15:02 UT), an Atlas V rocket carrying the Mars Science Laboratory lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.Image: Pat Corkery / United Launch Alliance

* Thanks to commenter Steven D. Adams for pointing me to the exact quote from Dr. Wilson.

The Time is Now.

As a Planetary Defender, you’re part of our mission to decrease the risk of Earth being hit by an asteroid or comet.

Donate Today