After Hours

The Freakonomics of space exploration

<em>Freakonomics</em> coauthor Steven J. Dubner asks six leading space scientists to justify government funding for space exploration in terms of a good old-fashioned cost-benefit analysis. The responses make for some rather <strike>extraterrestrial</strike> extraordinary debate.

Over at the Freakonomics Blog, Steven J. Dubner asks: "Is space exploration worth the cost?" Respondents include:

  • G. Scott Hubbard, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center
  • Joan Vernikos, member of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences and former director of NASA's Life Sciences Division
  • Kathleen M. Connell, founding team member of NASA's Astrobiology Program
  • Keith Cowing, founder and editor of and former NASA space biologist
  • David M. Livingston, host of The Space Show talk radio program
  • John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute

Now, this is not exactly a two-sided debate that Freakonomics is giving us, as everyone queried makes his or her living from government expenditures towards space exploration. What we really have here is a justify-your-salary exercise, which nonetheless brings up some interesting defenses for public sector space funding. Leaving aside the more esoteric "drive to explore," "political prestige," and "are we alone" philosophical justifications for space exploration, here are the raw economic money quotes:

  • Hubbard: "It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. " I'd like to see the origin of that figure.
  • Vernikos: "Royalties on NASA patents and licenses currently go directly to the U.S. Treasury, not back to NASA. I firmly believe that the Life Sciences Research Program would be self-supporting if permitted to receive the return on its investment." The notion that NASA (or parts of it) could be self-sustaining if it recognized revenue from its patents is intriguing, and certainly worthy of follow-up.
  • Cowing: "Right now, all of America's human space flight programs cost around $7 billion a year. That's pennies per person per day. In 2006, according to the USDA, Americans spent more than $154 billion on alcohol." Okay, we can discard the "minute fraction of GDP" argument as—at least for we government rationalists—there is no such thing as publicly disposable income. The alcohol comparison is cute, but ultimately not relevant. That's basically saying "space exploration might be a bad investment, but at least it's cheap."
  • Livingston: "When funding for [school breakfasts] stops, as soon as the last of the funds goes through the pipeline, the program is over. It has no life past government funding. ... when I asked guests on The Space Show, students, and people in space-related fields what inspired or motivated them to start a space business or pursue their science education, over 80 percent said they were inspired and motivated because of our having gone to the moon." Someone will have to rigorously demonstrate this effect for me, especially as a separate phenomenon from how, say, Star Trek inspires similar career and business choices—and does so far more cheaply and profitably.
  • Logsdon: "I believe that human exploration is needed to answer two questions. One is: 'Are there activities in other places in the solar system of such economic value that they justify high costs in performing them?' The other is: 'Can humans living away from Earth obtain at least a major portion of what they need to survive from local resources?' If the answer to both questions is 'yes,' then I believe that eventually some number of people in the future will establish permanent settlements away from Earth." This presents more questions than defensible answers, but at least lays out a reasonable justification for why private investment in human (not unmanned satellite) spaceflight hasn't happened on any significant scale yet. If NASA is working to answer these questions as a loss-leader to pave the way for sustainable private investment, at least that is the beginning of a reasonable fiscal defense of the agency.

That said, NASA should still be spending more money protecting me from killer space rocks. That's a return on investment nobody can argue with. Of course, that's just my opinion, so start shouting out yours in the comments section.


Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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