Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost? A Freakonomics Quorum

Warning: what follows is a long blog post, perhaps better suited for a newspaper or magazine, and it will at times require your close attention. But I believe it is easily one of the best quorums we’ve ever published here. I’d like to thank all the participants for their thoughtful, well-considered, and fascinating answers, and for taking the time to share their very considerable expertise and experience.

Pretend that instead of being responsible for your household budget, which means paying for rent or a mortgage, transportation, some schooling costs, groceries, healthcare, vacation, etc., you are instead responsible for a considerably larger budget that provides a variety of services for about 300 million people including the maintenance of an army, protecting the borders, etc. In other words, pretend you are responsible for the U.S. Federal budget. And now ask yourself how much of that money you want to spend on manned space travel, and why.

We gathered up a group of space authorities — G. Scott Hubbard, Joan Vernikos, Kathleen M. Connell, Keith Cowing, and David M. Livingston, and John M. Logsdon — and asked them the following:

Is manned space exploration worth the cost? Why or why not?

Their responses are below. As I suggested above, take your time. For the impatient among you, here are a few highlights:

Logsdon on a not-so-obvious incentive for manned space travel: “Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.”

Vernikos on the R.O.I. of space travel: “Economic, scientific and technological returns of space exploration have far exceeded the investment. … Royalties on NASA patents and licenses currently go directly to the U.S. Treasury, not back to NASA.”

Cowing on space expenditures relative to other costs: “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. We spend around $10 billion a month in Iraq. And so on.”

I hope you enjoy their answers, and learn from them, as much as I did.

G. Scott Hubbard, professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University and former director of the NASA Ames Research Center:

The debate about the relative merits of exploring space with humans and robots is as old as the space program itself. Werner Von Braun, a moving force behind the Apollo Program that sent humans to the moon and the architect of the mighty Saturn V rocket, believed passionately in the value of human exploration — especially when it meant beating the hated Soviet Empire. James Van Allen, discoverer of the magnetic fields that bear his name, was equally ardent and vocal about the value of robotic exploration.

There are five arguments that are advanced in any discussion about the utility of space exploration and the roles of humans and robots. Those arguments, in roughly ascending order of advocate support, are the following:

1. Space exploration will eventually allow us to establish a human civilization on another world (e.g., Mars) as a hedge against the type of catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs.
2. We explore space and create important new technologies to advance our economy. It is true that, for every dollar we spend on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit. Space exploration can also serve as a stimulus for children to enter the fields of science and engineering.
3. Space exploration in an international context offers a peaceful cooperative venue that is a valuable alternative to nation state hostilities. One can look at the International Space Station and marvel that the former Soviet Union and the U.S. are now active partners. International cooperation is also a way to reduce costs.
4. National prestige requires that the U.S. continue to be a leader in space, and that includes human exploration. History tells us that great civilizations dare not abandon exploration.
5. Exploration of space will provide humanity with an answer to the most fundamental questions: Are we alone? Are there other forms of life beside those on Earth?

It is these last two arguments that are the most compelling to me. It is challenging to make the case that humans are necessary to the type of scientific exploration that may bring evidence of life on another world. There are strong arguments on both sides. Personally, I think humans will be better at unstructured environment exploration than any existing robot for a very long time.

There are those who say that exploration with humans is simply too expensive for the return we receive. However, I cannot imagine any U.S. President announcing that we are abandoning space exploration with humans and leaving it to the Chinese, Russians, Indians, Japanese or any other group. I can imagine the U.S. engaging in much more expansive international cooperation.

Humans will be exploring space. The challenge is to be sure that they accomplish meaningful exploration.

Joan Vernikos, a member of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy and former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division:

Why explore? Asked why he kept trying to climb Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory reputedly replied, “Because it was there.” Exploration is intrinsic to our nature. It is the contest between man and nature mixed with the primal desire to conquer. It fuels curiosity, inspiration and creativity. The human spirit seeks to discover the unknown, and in the process explore the physical and psychological potential of human endurance.

There have always been the few risk-takers who ventured for the rest of us to follow. Because of earlier pioneers, air travel is now commonplace, and space travel for all is just around the corner. Economic and societal benefits are not immediately evident, but they always follow, as does our understanding of human potential to overcome challenges. Fifty years after Sputnik, space remains the next frontier.

Without risking human lives, robotic technology such as unmanned missions, probes, observatories, and landers enables space exploration. It lays the groundwork, and does the scouting. But as I heard former astronaut Thomas Jones often say, “only a human can experience what being in space feels like, and only a human can communicate this to others.” It is humans who repair the Hubble telescope. It is humans who service the International Space Station (ISS). Mercury astronauts were the first to photograph Earth from space with hand-held cameras. Earth scientists in orbit on the ISS may view aspects of global change that only a trained eye can see. In addition, studying astronauts in the microgravity of space has been the only means of understanding how gravity affects human development and health here on Earth. It is highly probable that, in this century, humans will settle on other planets. Our ability to explore and sustain human presence there will not only expand Earth’s access to mineral resources but, should the need arise, provide alternative habitats for humanity’s survival.

At what cost? Is there a price to inspiration and creativity? Economic, scientific and technological returns of space exploration have far exceeded the investment. Globally, 43 countries now have their own observing or communication satellites in Earth orbit. Observing Earth has provided G.P.S., meteorological forecasts, predictions and management of hurricanes and other natural disasters, and global monitoring of the environment, as well as surveillance and intelligence. Satellite communications have changed life and business practices with computer operations, cell phones, global banking, and TV. Studying humans living in the microgravity of space has expanded our understanding of osteoporosis and balance disorders, and has led to new treatments. Wealth-generating medical devices and instrumentation such as digital mammography and outpatient breast biopsy procedures and the application of telemedicine to emergency care are but a few of the social and economic benefits of manned exploration that we take for granted.

Space exploration is not a drain on the economy; it generates infinitely more than wealth than it spends. 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. NASA has done so much with so little that it has generally been assumed to have had a huge budget. In fact, the 2007 NASA budget of $16.3 billion is a minute fraction of the $13 trillion total G.D.P.

“What’s the hurry?” is a legitimate question. As the late Senator William Proxmire said many years ago, “Mars isn’t going anywhere.” Why should we commit hard-pressed budgets for space exploration when there will always be competing interests? However, as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo did 50 years ago, our future scientific and technological leadership depends on exciting creativity in the younger generations. Nothing does this better than manned space exploration. There is now a national urgency to direct the creative interests of our youth towards careers in science and engineering. We need to keep the flame of manned space exploration alive as China, Russia, India, and other countries forge ahead with substantial investments that challenge U.S. leadership in space.

Kathleen M. Connell, a principal of The Connell Whittaker Group, a founding team member of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, and former policy director of the Aerospace States Association:

The value of public sector human space exploration is generally perceived as worth the cost when exploration outcomes address one or more national imperatives of the era. For example, in the twentieth century, the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik required a bold technological retort by the U.S. Apollo put boots on the moon, winning the first space race. The resulting foreign policy boost and psychic prestige for the U.S. more that justified the cost for the Cold War generation. Unquestionably, manned exploration of that era also created unintended economic consequences and benefits, such as the spinoff of miniaturization that led to computers and cell phones. Apollo also created new NASA centers in the South, acting as an unanticipated economic development anchor for those regions, both then and now.

In the twenty-first century, what would happen if U.S. manned space programs were managed based upon the contemporary demands of the planet and the American taxpayer? NASA could be rewarded to explore, but with terrestrial returns as a priority. Space exploration crews could conduct global warming research on the International Space Station National Laboratory, while other crews from the public or private sector could rapidly assemble solar energy satellites for clean energy provision to Earth. Lunar settlements could be established to develop new energy sources from rare compounds that are in abundance on the moon. Getting to Mars, to develop a terrestrial lifeboat and to better understand the fate of planets, suddenly takes on new meaning and relevance.

I have to come the conclusion, after over 20 years in the space industry, that addressing global challenges with space solutions that benefit humanity and American constituents is the key to justifying the cost of manned space exploration. I believe we are about to find out, all over again, if civil manned space capability and policy can adapt and rise to meet new imperatives.

Keith Cowing, founder and editor of NASAWatch.com and former NASA space biologist.

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. We spend around $10 billion a month in Iraq. And so on. Are these things more important than human spaceflight because we spend more money on them? Is space exploration less important?

Money alone is not a way to gauge the worthiness of the cost of exploring space.

NASA is fond of promoting all of the spinoffs that are generated from its exploits, such as microelectronics. But are we exploring space to explore space, or are we doing all of this to make better consumer electronics? I once heard the late Carl Sagan respond to this question by saying, “you don’t need to go to Mars to cure cancer.” If you learn how to do that as a side benefit, well, that’s great, but there are probably more cost effective ways to get all of these spinoffs without leaving Earth.

To be certain, tax dollars spent on space projects result in jobs — a large proportion of which are high paying, high tech positions. But many other government programs do that as well — some more efficiently.

Still, for those who would moan that this money could be “better spent back on Earth,” I would simply say that all of this money is spent on Earth — it creates jobs and provides business to companies, just as any other government program does. You have to spend all of NASA’s money “on Earth.” There is no way to spend it in space — at least, not yet.

Where am I going with this? Asking if space exploration — with humans or robots or both — is worth the effort is like questioning the value of Columbus’s voyages to the New World in the late 1490s. The promise at the time was obvious to some, but not to others. Is manned space exploration worth the cost? If we Americans do not think so, then why is it that nations such as China and India — nations with far greater social welfare issues to address with their limited budgets — are speeding up their space exploration programs? What is it about human space exploration that they see? Could it be what we once saw, and have now forgotten?

As such, my response is another question: for the U.S. in the twenty-first century, is not sending humans into space worth the cost?

David M. Livingston, host of The Space Show, a talk radio show focusing on increasing space commerce and developing space tourism:

I hear this question a lot. So a few years ago, I decided to see what really happened to a public dollar spent on a good space program, compared to spending it on an entitlement program or a revenue generating infrastructure program. I used the school breakfast program for the test entitlement program. I chose Hoover Dam for the revenue generating infrastructure program. The space program I chose was the manned program to the moon consisting of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Let me briefly summarize what I discovered.

All programs, if properly managed, can produce benefits in excess to the original invested dollar. There is no guarantee that a program will be properly managed, and this includes a space program. “Properly managed” implies many things, but I don’t think space is any more or less likely to be well managed than anything else the government does. A mismanaged space program wastes money, talent, and time, just like any other faulty program.

As for what happened to the dollar invested in the respective programs, the school breakfast program was successful, in that it increased the number of kids who received breakfast. However, when funding for this program or this type of program stops, as soon as the last of the funds goes through the pipeline, the program is over. It has no life past government funding. I was unable to find an inspirational or motivational quality for the program leading to downstream business, economic, or science advancements. One could make the case that kids who benefited from the program went on through school to accomplish great things, and I don’t doubt that — I simply could not document it in my research.

The Hoover Dam was very interesting. This project paid off its bond cost early, was a major contributor to the U.S. victory in World War II, and has been a huge economic factor for development in the Western part of the country. However, the Hoover Dam requires overhead and maintenance investment on a continual basis. It needs repairs, updates, modernization, and security, and it employs a labor force. Were we to stop investing in the Hoover Dam, over time it would lose its effectiveness and cease to be the value to our nation that it is now. Its value to us depends on our willingness to maintain, protect, and update it as necessary. The Hoover Dam and Lake Mead have given birth to thousands of private businesses, economic growth for the region, and much more. However, as with the entitlement program above, I could not find an inspirational or motivational aspect to the Hoover Dam.

What I discovered about our manned lunar program was different. When I did this study, it was 34 years after the last dime had been spent on Apollo, the last of the manned moon programs. Thirty-four years later, 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. Businesses were started and are now meeting payrolls, paying taxes, and sustaining economic growth because the founder was inspired by the early days of the manned space program, often decades after the program ended! This type of inspiration and motivation seems unique to the manned space program and, of late, to some of our robotic space missions. I found the same to be true when I asked the same question to Space Show guests from outside the U.S.

John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute and acting director of the Center for International Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs:

The high costs of sending humans into orbit and beyond are measured in dollars, rubles, or yuan. The benefits of human spaceflight are not so easily calculated, since they include both tangible and intangible payoffs. So answering the question, “Do the benefits outweigh the costs?” is not straightforward.

If the payoffs are limited to scientific discovery, the position taken by many critics of human spaceflight is “no.” With both current and, especially, future robotic capabilities, the added value of human presence to missions aimed primarily at new understanding of the moon, Mars, near-Earth asteroids, and other celestial destinations most likely does not justify the added costs and risks involved. However, Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rovers, has frequently said that he wished that spirit and opportunity were working in partnership with humans on the surface of Mars; that combination, he argues, would greatly increase the scientific payoffs of the mission.

To me, the primary justifications for sending people into space require that they travel beyond low Earth orbit. For the next few decades, the major payoffs from humans traveling to the moon and Mars are intangible, and linked to both national pride and national power. Space exploration remains an effort that can be led by only a few countries, and I believe that it should be part of what the United States does in its desire to be seen by both its citizens and the global public as a leader, one to be admired for its continued willingness to invest in pushing the frontiers of human activity.

In the longer run, 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, in the extreme case to ensure that the human species will survive a planetary catastrophe, but also because people migrate for both economic opportunities and new experiences. That is a big jump from today’s argument regarding the costs and benefits of human spaceflight, but I believe such a long range perspective is the best way to justify a new start in human space exploration.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 214

View All Comments »
  1. Naomi says:

    What about democracy? Shouldn’t that play a part in this decisition? Democracy runs the countrys and should have a say in wether they cut the funds for space exploration. Some say why do we need it, others have a good awnser, vote on it.

    But do not stop exploration all together, just fund it less. There are still resons to keep is like what if an astroid comes toward Earth? What will we do then without exploration.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Andy says:

    I really get tired of complaints of the cost of the space program. I have people say look at all that money laying on the moon. Guess what that is nothing more than packaging material that delivered the product to the moon. The total space program has been only around one cent of the tax dollar where welfare takes in excess of 50 cents of the tax dollar. Now lets talk about money. I worked 40 years in the space program, long hours to reach our objectives. Think about this, all of the spinoff technology has created jobs for American citizens as well as the space program. Now before I recieved my paycheck 40% was deducted for taxes fed and state. Then I bought food, cars, a home, utilities, entertainment vacations and so on. All the people that produced those items including mining the oar for steel to make each and every bolt or whatever, also paid ther taxes and bought all the same items as I did. Think of all the people that myself and all the other space workers put to work just to buy a home, the loggers, lumber manfacturers, nail makers, paint makers, cement producers, electrical wire, switches, lights and etc, contractors and their employes they also paid their taxes and bought all the items it take to live, clothing etc. I hope everyone gets the message the space program cost the American Citizens nothing all the money was put to use right here on earth and we sure gained a lot from it. I would like to know what the people who complain, contributed to make our American way of life better for me this past 50 years.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. Sheila Martin says:

    This is a very one-sided discussion. I thought you guys believed in looking at both sides?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. jim says:

    The plethora of ideas, technology and subsequent wealth generated by the investments in space exploration, was restricted, due to the limitations of our current economic distribution systems, to a fraction of the worlds people. Thus an enormous gap between the haves and the have-nots exists.

    Where that leads no one knows, but the status quo will not stand.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Zayn says:

    Well nice debate going on…. Nothing for me to argue.. I just came here to take a few points for my language homework…

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. Paul S says:

    I support space exploration definitely because of the valuable knowledge gained from NASA and the “space spinoffs” the people receive from space intended inventions.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. Matt K says:

    Hello Mr. Dubner,

    I agree with the fact that there is a lot of spending in seemingly useless areas and these funds should be moved to other programs that are more in need. I also feel that space is the next frontier and we need to continue to invest in the space programs.

    Would you mind reading my blog at http://sites.isucomm.iastate.edu/mhk/benefits-of-human-space-exploration/? I would like to have your perspective.

    Matt Kissinger
    mhk@iastate.edu
    The Green Room at Iowa State University

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0