Nasa / Space

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 NASAWatch.com 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.

About

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...

31 comments
davetracer
davetracer

There's only so much energy on the Earth. That's the way it is. Sure, we can stay on Earth, watch our resources dwindle, let people die who cannot handle winter without heat, and so forth. We're starting that now. It's called "Cap and Trade". In outer space, we get the full power of sunlight, unfiltered by atmosphere. It's awesome. In zero-G it's easy to build really big solar cells. The Moon is waiting to be mined. So are the asteroids, some of which have amazing metal content. Don't have to pollute the Earth up there. If we go there, I hate to say it, but we'll all get rich. Of course, the United States doesn't have to be the country that goes there. Russia and China and Japan have made it quite clear they're going. We're retiring our Space Shuttles and have nothing to turn to. China's put men into orbit, as have the Russians. The money for NASA has been diverted to ACORN, a political group. -- Dave

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Because it's so easy to get a personal rake off. Because there are massive defence implications. You heard of project Orion? Because if Richard Branson makes it first, it will be a political disaster of the first magnitude? I'd love to hear the howl from the american tax payer, when Richard stick's a union jack on his first space hotel. :D Joy or rage you reckon.? You can't leave aside those connotations, they are the real point. Sheesh all your forebears took the big risk, upped sticks, saying there's got to be something better than this sh1t. Then turned into Squires with Luddite leanings. Go figure... Besides If you stopped piffling the money that is allocated to space exploration by giving it to commercial interests, who give it to 'well meaning' politicians who then give it back to them as a nice fat contract. One of us could be logging on from space right now.

Jaqui
Jaqui

Both these points are related: 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. Jay, thermal blankets, used for disaster rescue. fire shielding used in many heavy industry operations KEVLAR A large number of small discoveries about biology that have let to significant improvements in medical knowledge. Velcro all are things we have GAINED from space exploration. all have patents that would make NASA completely self sufficient financially if they were allowed to collect on the royalties. yes, velcro was invented by NASA to give them a means to secure items in place in the microgravity environment of orbit. There have also been a lot of really basic increases in technology as a direct result of space exploration, since everything had to be redesigned to work in space.

Snak
Snak

Space Exploration is an absolute must. For Three reasons. 1. The advancement of Human Knowledge 2. Somewhere to go when the next meteorite hits, the San Andreas Fault opens up and/or Yellowstone Park goes pop (95% of every species that has ever lived on the Earth is now extinct - think about that) 3. There are 7 Billion of us - Humans, like rabbits, just don't know when to stop. If you want to stop wasting money - stop throwing bombs at people.

faradhi
faradhi

George de Mestral a Swiss mountaineer invented based on a plant that used burrs to move seeds to fertile grounds.

Snak
Snak

... that people do recognise the benefits brought to us by 'Space Exploration'. It is, however, disheartening that some people see Space Exploration, or the money spent thereon, as being (indirectly) responsible for famines, underfunded education systems and other gripes. If the amount of money governments currently spend on killing people were redirected towards CONstructive projects rather than DEstructive ones, I'd suggest that not only could we feed, educate and cure, we'd be sending space pioneers out within a generation. I repeat - if you want to stop wasting money STOP MAKING BOMBS!

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

Columbus goes to the Queen of England and asks for funds to travel to far off lands. The Queen says no, waste of money. Luckily someone in Spain funded his boats to travel to a new world, else I would not be sitting here in NW USA typing this reply. Les.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

I like space exploration, i think it greatly advance mankind's knowledge. The reality is that my kid goes to underfunded, undermanned schools. How can we spend this much money on space travel yet we can't afford decent public schools with well paid teachers (enough of them, as well), enough money to actually have decent IT support at EACH school and provide decent food. Take care of the homefront and the most important part of our future, our children...then look skyward.

golncor
golncor

1. ok 2. We will never have the capability to move to another planet and survive more than a few months. Not enough people, not enough resources, not enough time. 3. what does space exploration contribute to the human race that is directly relatable to anything that is in dire need of support or action? We've got thousands dying daily due to famine, disease, amd war. We can't take care of what we have but we continue to spend billions on a few to travel into space.

Minstrel Mike
Minstrel Mike

I'm trying to see how your argument against space exploration holds up as you compare apples and oranges. Apparently the folks can't justify their salaries for mere exploration, but they would automatically justify their salaries if they were protecting the Earth from a meteor strike. Apparently that's a 'Duh!' moment for you. Well, what does space exploration lead to? Living in space. If we can move off the planet, then even if we miss an asteroid and the earth is destroyed, humanity still goes on. Isn't that also a 'Duh!' thing automatically worth doing?

nhahajn
nhahajn

Add to that the many new inovations that have resulted from solving the problems associated with space travel.

imonroe
imonroe

NASA has been the symbol of American ambition for the last 40 years. I think the government should get rid of socialist programs and spend it all on NASA and national defense. If you want health care, pay for it, if you want education pay for it, if you want food pay for it, if you want money, work for it to pay for the rest!

faradhi
faradhi

Glad to included a link. I saw it on a PBS show about plants.

cubeslave
cubeslave

I seem to recall (I think it was a program on TV) that most of the prosperous countries in the world spend a much smaller portion of their economy on military spending than the US does. It gets down right Freudian to observe how the same government officials that will fight sending food or humanitarian aid to countries are perfectly willing to spend many times that same amount of money putting troops and bases in the same country. A I have heard it, in Iraq, after the government was overthrown there were plenty of people saying that we needed to pay the army and police to stay in place in keep order. Unfortunately an appointee of W's decided to disband it all(creating the insurgency) because that would have been a waste of money. Paying the people already there to keep order would have been such a sissy thing to do. The alternative, on the other hand, was more satisfyingly macho.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

who paid homage to a bunch of terrorists committed to overthrowing her reign and then pulling bits off her with red hot pincers. You think she should have given him money? We ended up with the place anyway until some ungrateful louts threw us out. :D You p1ssed on my petunias there, I'm a big fan of Good Queen Bess. She paid for Walter and Francis, good home grown talent. Course both of them paid her back, would Christopher have. I bet the poor guy was saying hail mary's the entire trip for fear of eternal damnation for dealing with that heretical english woman.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

If you want your kid to go to a better funded better manned school, write to your local government officials and ask them to raise your taxes to pay for it. Simple really, Les.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

should have stayed in europe knuckling their foreheads to the gentry and being persecuted then? Columbus was an idiot, he should have chopped his ships up and had them made in to pencils. It would appear the underfunding in your schools started a generation ago. You do know how much of NASA's budget is padded by commerical interest group's don't you. After all if you give the business to a campaign contributor at least some good will come out it. Did you know it costs more to re-furbish the shuttle's solid fuel booster rockets than it would to build new ones. It's PR exercise. Of course firing the thing up into space, baking it on reentry, and quenching it in sea water, is a perfectly sensible way to treat a critical peice of equipment. Actually make that three generations.

cubeslave
cubeslave

The idea that money going into space exploration is keeping money away from more humanitarian causes is a con game perpetuated by politicians who do not see any NASA funds spent in their districts. You might as well blame Public Broadcasting for the fall of American manufacturing. We would be better off with more space exploration and less politics. We spend far more to pay farmers not to grow food, and in tax breaks to companies that move jobs out of America (not to mention all the other corporate welfare) than we ever spend on space exploration. At least with NASA funding we are getting some decent R&D. If there wasn't so much politically motivated tinkering by non scientists we would be seeing many more benefits. Most of the money that goes into NASA would, instead be going directly into the Defense Department's R&D budget. The rest would be spent on political pork. A lot of lives are now saved by satellite, medical and water purification technologies that are spin-offs from the space program. Even when weather and natural disaster cause human suffering, most of the famine disease and death have to do with political agendas. The results of keeping out foreign aid while drought and famine kill off the groups you find undesirable, or tying aid to abstinence only sex ed are the same. People suffer for avoidable reasons that have nothing to do with putting man in space.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Not sure how many AUs I want to put between us, but the more the better. US defense budget last year was $493 billion, UK Health System $210 billion. The apollo program cost about 500 billion, over 13 years. You want to do something about world famine. We buy their food off them, fly it over here, sell a bit of it, then throw the rest away. Chop that dumbf**k stupidity by 1% will do more than cancelling the entire program. Besides if you think starving africans would get the money to buy clean water and a loaf of bread, you are even less intelligent than you first appear.

fmcgowan
fmcgowan

The *entire* PC industry is a consequence of the NASA programs that started in the '50s and continue to this day. The nascent fuel cell industry that many hope will free us from dependency on oil is also a benefit of the space program. The remote telemetry instruments used in the medical industry are commercialized and enhanced versions of the instrumentation used to monitor astronauts status in space. The carbon fiber being introduced to the automobile industry came from the space program as did the lighter, stronger (and the *much* more expensive boron fiber we have yet to see in commercial products). I'm sure the list is *much* longer, but I'm out of time. I think you should peek out from under *your* rock...

Minstrel Mike
Minstrel Mike

We will 'never' do anything is not a fact; it is mere opinion. The Earth is a single size--that IS a fact. We cannot continually increase our population AND remain on the Earth. That is suicide for our race. If you don't mind continual war, famine, and genocide, then let's just keep doing what we're doing. Whether we can 'never' learn to control our reproduction rate and have a sustainable steady-state economy is an unknown. Whether we can live on other planets is also unknown. However, whether we can live in space habitats is already known. Whether you'd want to or not is probably irrelevant (I wouldn't). If we could possibly expand on earth to 15 or 20 billion, then many of us would be living in giant arcologies, probably not much more different than living on some enclosed space station.

abrad30
abrad30

In reference to #3. Thousands have always died every day from myriad causes. If we stopped spending on space exploration & rechanneled to anything else, they'd still die in the thousands. I think the figure on alcohol & space cost is telling: stop spending on space & alcohol consumption does not change by a dime. Alcohol abuse and its' ancilliaries kill. If we refocus the entire NASA budget on alcohol abuse protection will it change anything or just be squandered? I do think we get more bang for our buck fom space, both spiritually and monetarially.

imonroe
imonroe

OK, that was a little bit of an exageration. The money saved by not subsidising those things should go into the tax payers pocket not necessarily NASA. However, I would rather pay for NASA than government programs that undermine the growth private companies. Not to mention allow for products to exist that couldn't in a free market ie. Ethanol.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. by not being taxed to subsidise health care and food and education .. .. should go to NASA. Les.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

and a criticism in the same post, it's treason. That tour round the Tower of London you were planning, could end up taking longer than you thought....

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. that I was in any way sharing an opinion about Columbus and QE1. Les.

SObaldrick
SObaldrick

.. funding for NASA has very little connection with funding for education. Les.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

The entire school system needs a massive revamping. Can I afford to send my kids to better private school? Yes. Do I? Yes. It's the rest of the kids I worry about, too. Writing local government officials doesn't do a thing. People have been doing that for years and we're still in the same trouble.

imonroe
imonroe

Yes, munday it is that simple. Or better yet, although not as simple, do away with public education and send your kid to the best school you can afford.

brodriguez@applevalley.
brodriguez@applevalley.

It is important to note (if you will pardon my rant) that despite the nobalest of efforts - History still manages to repeat itself. While we have an ingrained need to explore and learn, the discovery and exploration of new places to live does not equate to a solution for war famine and genocide, but instead have always resulted in greater genocide, war and famine. Imperialism and Manifest Destiny played their part, but the real problems are hate, greed and fear which would not suddenly end. Instead it would merely demonstrate the increasingly suicidal and destructive nature of our species. I believe the success of Space Exploration and habitation, and thusly humanity, rests not on the economics of the explorers, but the intentions and actions of everyone they leave behind.