In my Earth Systems class we recently wrapped up our discussion on cosmology. Student groups presented information on one of the four major pieces of evidence supporting the Big Bang, or how we know the age and expansion of the universe. The presentations went fairly well, but I found myself wishing the students had taken more responsibility to dig into the subject on their own, without so much prompting and prodding from me. I guess I have a hard time realizing that some people don’t find astronomy as fascinating and rewarding as I do.
We discussed how the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will push back the frontiers of our knowledge. I was trying to convey my enthusiasm for what we will find out, but this whole issue came to a head with one of my students asking why we should be spending about five billion dollars on such a telescope.
It was a legitimate question, and one every astronomy professional and enthusiast like me should be able to answer. Why spend so much money on the James Webb Telescope, or, for that money, why spend money on NASA at all? As we face huge cuts to so many federal programs in the approaching “fiscal cliff,” why not take the money we would spend on space exploration and give it to some other program, such as social welfare or disaster relief or even reducing the federal deficit? What good does NASA do us, anyway?
Quite a bit of good, actually.
It might surprise you to find out that NASA’s budget is a very small fraction of the federal yearly budget, currently less than one half of one percent. When asked, many people guess that NASA’s budget is far greater than it is. If you look at the chart here, you will see that although the total dollars spent have risen, once you adjust for inflation and express the yearly budgets in amounts adjusted to 2007 values, you see that NASA’s budget is actually lower than it has been since the dark days of the 1970s. And yet NASA manages to still do amazing things.
People complain that we are spending billions of dollars each year in space. As former Utah Senator (and shuttle astronaut) Jake Garn is fond of saying, we haven’t spent one dime in space. There are no banks there. All the money spent on NASA has been spent on jobs right here on Earth. Over 400,000 Americans worked in some capacity on the Apollo program, from the aerospace firms that built the lunar lander and the Saturn V rocket to the elderly lady who sewed the space suit linings by hand in her home. It was one of the largest cooperative efforts ever, and it brought our nation together. Utah gets a good share of the NASA budget; the highest state that does not have a NASA field center.
A study done by an independent research firm in 1971 looked at the return on investment for money spent on the Apollo space program. $26 billion were spent between 1966 and 1969 to get Apollo 11 to the moon and back. Looking at the spin-off technologies and impetus provided, it was estimated that over $52 billion worth of new businesses and technology advancements came as a result of the Apollo program by 1971. They estimated the total could get as high as $188 billion by 1980. This is probably a low estimate – in 1971, they could not have anticipated the huge push the space program would give to the computer industry. The Apollo capsule required a sophisticated computer, which had to be shrunk down from the size of a room to fit in a small, cramped capsule. This led directly to developing microprocessors and integrated circuits, miniaturized components, etc. and probably boosted the computer industry by at least ten years. But even within two years the Apollo program had returned over 100% on its investment (it doubled the tax dollars put into it). Investing in space exploration is the very best use of federal tax dollars. I challenge you to find any other program that has done as well.
You use technologies every day that depend on the space program or were initially developed for the space program. Every time you use a cell phone, your signal is being bounced to a relay station, then sent to a communications satellite in orbit before bouncing back to earth. Your satellite TV, such as Dish Network, relies on these same satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Without the rockets and launch facilities invented and maintained by NASA, we would have no cell phones. Think of what computers were like ten years ago, and that’s what they’d be like now, or worse, without the space program.
The digital camera in your cell phone (and in your camcorder, etc.) was invented for space probes. A probe sent to Jupiter or Mars was not going to return to Earth, so the only way to get photos back was to invent an electronic sensor that could record light intensity in a grid pattern, then run the light through red, green, and blue filters. The recorded voltages set up (an array of numbers) was then deconstructed and beamed back to Earth as binary code using the communication system on the probes, then reconstructed at the Multi Mission Image Processing Lab at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now that electronic device is the CCD or CMOS sensor in your digital camera. Many of the compression algorithms used to make images and video streams smaller for the Internet were first used to compress the data stream from space probes.
You say we would be better served spending the money on social programs, such as improving the environment or feeding starving millions in the world. Yet NASA is our best hope for doing just that. Much of what we know about the environment comes from looking down at Earth from space. NASA doesn’t just send probes to Venus or Saturn; most space probes are sent to orbit the Earth and study our world. NASA can track the height of oceans to predict El Niño, it can track plankton blooms in the Atlantic Ocean and correlate that information with movements of loggerhead turtles to better understand and protect an endangered species.
NASA can track the melting and breaking of icebergs and continental ice sheets and monitor temperature changes worldwide. It is NASA and NOAA that provide most of the data about climate change. NASA can track deforestation in the Amazon rain forest, the size of the ozone hole over Antarctica, and many other things.
And, of course, weather satellites depend on NASA launch vehicles and facilities to get into orbit, and think how knowing what the weather will be has saved lives by predicting hurricanes and other severe weather. The death toll for Superstorm Sandy was too high, but would have been far worse without weather satellites to track the storm and provide warning.
All of these benefits make the space program well worth the investment. But there is something even more important that the space program has the potential to give us that no other program can: the ultimate survival of the human species. So far all of human history has been tied to this one pale, blue dot in space, our small home planet Earth. Yet Earth is so vulnerable. A single rogue comet or asteroid could wipe us out. One errant solar flare could cook us all. And we know that, over the next billion years, the inevitable brightening of our sun will boil away Earth’s oceans and make life impossible here. For us to survive in the long term, we can’t have all of our eggs in this same tiny basket any longer. It is time for the human race to move out into space, to spread out beyond this planet. NASA had provided the first small steps in that direction.
Living on Earth is also a zero-sum game. The best we could hope, with 100% efficient recycling, is to not use up any more resources. But we don’t have 100% efficient recycling and never can have it (because of that pesky old second law of thermodynamics). In the long term, all the easy-to-get-at resources will be gone (some, like petroleum, are running out rapidly). We won’t be able to maintain our standard of living for very much longer. Your generation will either face a world of diminishing opportunities or you will have to find resources outside Earth. If we could corral one small asteroid and put it into Earth orbit, it would supply all the metals we need for Earth and space industry for many years.
The most costly thing about space exploration is simply getting into space. Gravity is our enemy, and the hard equations of physics cannot be broken. NASA may not be the best way to create launch vehicles; the recent success of the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule system shows that private industry can probably do the job of routine space cargo and taxi missions cheaper and more efficiently than the federal government can. But NASA still needs to have a place in pushing knowledge forward, in conducting fundamental aerospace research that private industry won’t do, and in pushing the envelope of exploration. If we do not explore, we will stagnate.
All of these reasons aside, NASA is justified just for the doing what it is meant to do: to broaden our understanding of our place in the universe. It is humbling to think that we are living on one planet of eight (Pluto got demoted for very good reasons. Get over it!) in our solar system which orbits a fairly average yellow dwarf star (out of 200 billion or so) orbiting the center of the Milky Way Galaxy about 3/5 of the way from the galactic core. Ours is one of several large spirals, dwarf ellipticals, and irregular galaxies in our local group, which is part of the huge Virgo supercluster of galaxies, which is a small fraction of the visible universe. Using the Hubble Telescope deep field (and ultra and extreme deep field) images, astronomers (and my own students) estimate that there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe, extending out in all directions to 13.7 billion light years. If this is the only planet with life (which is unlikely given the immense numbers involved), life if precious indeed. If it is not, then we are not alone. We would not have this perspective without NASA. This knowledge justifies all the expense, and changes us from homo sapiens to homo universus. All of the recent buzz about Curiosity finding traces of carbon compounds on Mars is just a preview of the day we find life elsewhere in the universe and realize we are only a small part of something so much greater than our own limited species.
NASA is a national treasure and of great benefit to our country. But they’re not very good at self-promotion, so most Americans don’t know their good fortune to have NASA. Other countries are beginning to realize the importance of a space program. The human race will eventually get into deep space, but it may be China or India or Europe or Russia that leads the way; perhaps the day has already come that the United States is slipping into obscurity.
But hope remains. I was at JPL when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, and there was no shortage of innovation, creativity, enthusiasm or determination. That was NASA (and America) at its finest as well-trained people worked together to create a rover, then risk it all on one small chance to land in Gale Crater. It was thrilling to watch it all unfold. Having seen that, I can tell you that this country needs NASA more than it needs almost any other program. To stop funding NASA would be a national tragedy that will play out in your generation.
If you would like to read an excellent article with more specifics on the economic and social benefits of NASA and the Apollo program, here is a link: