The Economics of Space Exploration

It seems to me….

I see all this talk about jobs going overseas as a symptom of the absence of innovation. And the absence of innovation is a symptom of there being no major national priority to advance a frontier.” ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson[1].

The history of exploration has never been driven by a desire for discovery; the primary motivation always has been either military superiority or financial gain. Regardless, U.S. space exploration in the 1960s resulted in innovation that propelled our economy over the next four decades[2] creating many high-skilled jobs and making space the best investment in our nation’s history.

Today there are only two space-faring nations: the U.S. is no longer one of them. Congress unwisely gave up the moon after the last Apollo mission ended on 19 December 1972; then, on 21 July 2011 Congress terminated any U.S. ability to even go into space. No one should consider this to be “progress”.

China, as a nation, realizes that if you go to space, the nation rallies around the program. Russia continues to develop its missile and exploration capabilities. Both nations have announced plans to establish manned landings and permanent lunar bases by 2020. It is becoming obvious that what the U.S. will find when we next return to the moon is that the Chinese and Russians are already there.

The benefits of manned spaceflight, similar to exploration of any new frontier, are worth the risks and contributes to the strength of the nation’s economy. A culture of innovation spawns entirely new economies and is necessary to remain competitive in this century. We must constantly innovate economic and technological advances or we otherwise will see employment opportunities migrate to other countries as they develop the ability to perform tasks better and at lower cost. Our problem is not the loss of jobs through off-shoring and globalization but the failure to create new opportunities at a sufficient rate to replace them.

A culture of innovation shapes what gets invented, how it gets invented, how quickly it gets invented, how much people embrace the science class that they’re in, the sense with which people protect the science curriculum and promote it…; otherwise it’s susceptible to people dictating whatever they want taught – regardless of whether or not it’s science.

Only half of one cent in the U.S. national budget is currently spent on the space program yet it yields so much benefit to the economy and our quality of life. Studies indicate that each dollar spent on space-related R&D returns an average of slightly over seven dollars in GNP over an eighteen-year period following the expenditure. Granted this is essentially true for any similar “well-managed” program, not only space exploration. The primary difference is that our investments in space-related programs are still continuing to sustain economic growth decades following actual program termination.

Consider just some of the many fallout advances that resulted from the space program: the personal computer, cell phone, and GPS are obvious. The precision and affordability of LASIK surgery became accurate and affordable as a result of technologies NASA pioneered to dock the space shuttle with the space station. Cordless power tools were invented because you can’t plug tools into the wall sockets when you’re fixing satellites or space-walking around the space shuttle. There’s the Cochlear Implant that allows deaf people to hear. We have smoke detectors. Pavements in slippery areas are grooved (it’s simple and it’s low-tech, not high-tech) came from landing space shuttle rubber tires onto concrete. Scratch-resistant lenses for eyeglasses reduced the possible risk of debris hitting Shuttle windows compromising an astronaut’s view…. Everyone can come up with numerous additional items.

A return-on-investment should not be considered a sufficient way to gauge the cost worthiness of exploring space (royalties on NASA patents and licenses currently go directly to the U.S. Treasury, not back to NASA). There are two primary justifications for venturing into space: scientific discovery and to gain experience necessary for man to move beyond the confines of our planet of origin. I personally believe the latter of the two to be the most important. Humans are an exploring species that always seek to expand into new frontiers: space represents the ultimate frontier.

The actual annual percentage of the federal budget needed to return astronauts to the Moon would be less than 1 percent, a relatively insignificant amount compared to the total Congressional/White House budget or with the amount spent on domestic programs and other higher priority budget items. Interestingly, the production costs of some recent science fiction themed movies rivaled that of some NASA-funded mission budgets; e.g., Avatar – $425,000,000.

Space is becoming smaller, closer, and cheaper reinventing an industry that has stagnated for decades and making room for new applications, technologies, and competitors. The ability to get to space has changed more in the last five years than during the entire prior period of space exploration and this new accessibility may radically change activities in space. As NASA pushes deeper into space, firms are taking over responsibility for transport and services to low earth orbit as evident from contract awards for commercial resupply and crew transportation. Companies are looking into mining asteroids, space tourism, and even establishing planetary colonies.

It should be obvious that the time has come for most space-related missions to be contracted out to private corporations rather than by NASA. NASA should establish program requirements for competitive contracts for establishing a permanent base first on the Moon and then on to Mars. Public funding for these high-risk programs remains essential but it is time for the government to begin that transition.

Hopefully, the lesson has been learned following our last excursion to the moon well-over forty years ago. When we again venture back into space, this time it should be very clear that WE INTEND TO STAY.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator.

[2] Miller, Todd. Space exploration and the culture of innovation: an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, SFGate, http://blog.sfgate.com/tmiller/2012/03/28/space-exploration-and-the-culture-of-innovation-an-interview-with-neil-degrasse-tyson/, 28 March 2012.

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About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
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