Monday, July 20th, 2009

[Edit 2009-July-20, 19:53GMT Added source for number of taxpayers in the United States]

Why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal?” asked President Kennedy during a speech at Rice University in 1962. The answer he gave then still rings true:

We choose to go to the moon…and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard., because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

No other human endeavor tests us as much as space travel. No other pushes us so far beyond our limits. To conquer space, we invent new materials and new sciences. We dream up new maths and new engineering disciplines. We break our understanding of physics and put it together again. There is no goal that is more fitting for the human spirit than space flight.

This answer is the right answer, and it sounds good in a speech; so it’s the answer that President Kennedy gave to that crowd in Texas. But that’s not the answer that gave him the political capital to demand giant sums of money from Congress and it’s not the answer that made the American people happy to pay it. That answer is a bit more terrestrial: the Soviets. We went to the moon just so we could do it before Moscow.

Today, on the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing, the Soviet Union does not exist. The Cold War pressures that drove the space race are a distant memory to those were alive at the time and a mere history lesson an increasingly large percentage of the population (myself included).

Our space program shows it too. The institutions which launched Americans into the new frontier atop columns of fire are shadows of their former selves. Since 1972, no human being has even left Low Earth Orbit.

Most of the focus of the American space program has been on unmanned missions — and even those are facing ever-shrinking budgets. And some are starting to ask, “Why go to space? Why choose this as our goal? Why should we spend so much money just to go to space?”

The first answer is still the same. Because it’s hard. Because it’s so hard that its difficulty itself is a reason to do it. Because unless we face the most extreme challenges, we will never know what we are capable of and we will never learn to push ourselves past those limits.

In general, though, people who are asking the question don’t care about that answer. They see the price tags of a single shuttle launch ($450m per launch) and want to know what direct benefit they get from it. I have a few things to say to this hypothetical person.

The total budget for NASA in 2009 was $17.2 billion. Note that this isn’t just for the space program: NASA does significant research in aeronautics, earth’s climate, earth’s geology, and other things. Only a portion of that $17.2 billion dollars actually goes to space; but let’s pretend that all of it does.

$17.2 billion dollars. At first glance, that’s an awfully large dollar amount. But compared to the rest of the United States government, it’s not even a drop in the bucket. That $17.2 billion dollars is only 0.55% of the federal budget for 2009. In 2010, NASA’s budget is projected to drop to 0.52% of the federal budget. In either case, it’s barely half of one percent. For what it’s worth, it comes out to about $130 per taxpayer per year.

In 2009, when Congress spent $17.2 billion on NASA, they’re set to spend $130 billion on the war in Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the total cost of the war will reach $1.9 trillion by 2017 (that’s actually low-balling; they’re estimating that interest payments on this borrowed money will bring the total to $2.4 trillion). Using a back-of-the-envelope linear extrapolation of NASA’s budget for the same time period (2003 – 2017), NASA will have cost the United States only $261 billion dollars. You might notice that that’s a good bit less.

But that’s war. War is expensive and many view the costs as prudent expenses towards national defense. So let’s say that it’s not a fit comparison. During 2008 and 2009, the United States has given $574 billion to troubled financial institutions under the TARP bailouts. 2009 isn’t over yet, so we can expect that number to be quite a bit higher by January. During the same time period, NASA spent only $36 billion. And they sent things to Pluto.

I could probably find many other examples (after all, the United States spends only half a percent of its money on NASA. The odds are that there are plenty of programs that cost more), but I’m going to cop out on it because I’m tired of doing research. If you’d like to do your own, a good place to start would be Universe Today’s “8 Ridiculous Things Bigger Than NASA’s Budget” article from a couple of months ago.

My main point with these numbers is just this: lots of things that the United States does is expensive. While it’s certainly the duty of the responsible task payer to question where his money is going and why, you shouldn’t start off asking about NASA. NASA is small potatoes. It’s just a very visible potato and newscasters like to talk about how much each shuttle launch costs. It’s a shame they don’t mention cost figures for other things — like every session of Congress (I’ve seen estimates that a session of Congress costs over $4 billion; and that’s not counting the costs of the laws themselves).

I’m willing to cut the doubter some slack, though. Let’s assume that my hypothetical opponent has done the research. They’ve measured the cost of every other government program and are satisfied that it’s money well spent. But they look at the space program and wonder, “Why is this worth my $130 a year?”

So why is it? Well, because we learn things. We know more about the universe and our place in it this decade than we did last decade. We know that water ice exists just below the surface of Mars. We know that Mars had a warmer and wetter climate in the recent past. We know that perchlorate, a chemical that can serve as food for some species of bacteria, exists on Mars today.

We know more about Jupiter’s atmosphere and we know where its rings came from. We’ve confirmed the theory of general relativity to an accuracy within 20 parts per million. We’ve discovered five more moons of Saturn. We know that different parts of Saturn rotate at different speeds. We know that one of Saturn’s moons has an atmosphere of water vapor.

And those are just a selection of things learned from two missions (the Cassini probe and the Phoenix Mars lander). There’s much more than that.

This is enough to satisfy me. But I understand that not everyone thinks knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake. The space program has brought other benefits as well.

With every unmanned mission, we learn how to build better robots. And of course, robotics is used throughout the world in industry (try to imagine a modern car factory without its robots!) to my own house where I have a robot vacuum cleaner. As every mission is exposed to high levels of radiation, we learn how to build more robust microchips (the invention of which itself owes a great debt to the Apollo program). With every mission, we want to launch more instruments at lower costs, so we invent new engineering skills and techniques. It’s hard to say where modern ceramics would be without the space shuttle’s demand for extremely heat-resistant tiles. Heck, the modern smoke detector was invented for the Skylab space station. No one at NASA set out to invent the home smoke detector; but there it is. Who knows what other benefits will come from new space research; but I’m certainly glad we’re funding it.

I’ve saved the best reason for last. In my mind, this is the ultimate reason why the United States needs to maintain a strong space program — every other benefit is mere icing on the cake. And it’s this:

During the next shuttle launch, some little girl is going to be watching it with her class and she’s going to become inspired. She’s going to ask herself, “What’s out there?” and she’ll decide that she wants to find out the answer for herself. So she’ll study her math and her science and go on to do great things. A little boy is going to see the classic Hubble Deep Field image and he’s going to start asking questions and when his teacher says “I don’t know”, he won’t be satisfied. And he’ll study and learn and go on to do great things.

In my mind (and the minds of many others), there is nothing that inspires the human spirit as much as outer space. It challenges all our emotions and our intellects to even grasp the concept of the universe; but there are some who aren’t content with that and will work to understand it. These people will build our future. These people are our next Einsteins and Feynmans and Newtons.

And some of them are going to start off as little children who get to email an astronaut as part of a class assignment.

Quite frankly, if that’s not worth $17.2 billion (or $130) a year, I can’t imagine what is.

If you’re still not convinced, maybe you’ll find Aaron Sorkin’s Sam Seaborn a bit more inspirational:


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