America’s Wilting Ambition

Regular readers will be aware that while I generally believe more in private industry and the free market than government largesse — mainly because central planning tends to lead to capital misallocation — there are some projects that need to be undertaken that are simply too big for anyone other than government. Space exploration is one example.

Here’s NASA’s budget as a percentage of GDP:

America went to the moon. Then it stopped caring about space, and started caring about spreading itself about the world in military adventurism.

Instead, other nations began racing ahead:

Why does this matter?

Well, resources on Earth are limited, by definition. As human civilisation expands and expands, we need to use more and more resources just to subsist.

And the only place for us to acquire more resources is off the planet.

Furthermore, a presence in space makes civilisation much more robust. If we’re only on one planet, we could be wiped out by a pandemic, or a nuclear catastrophe, or any such black swan. If we’re spread around the cosmos, it is much harder for us to be wiped out. Now, the International Space Station is a step toward that. But it’s hardly where we need to be: a space-faring, space-resources-acquiring species.

Space policy can be frustrating. The lunar missions were funded because they achieved a clearly-defined and obvious objective: put humans onto the surface of an alien world. Governments and populations could understand it. Modern day space programs don’t have such clearly-defined and obvious objectives. The kinds of research that goes on on the International Space Station are important, but obscure.

That’s one reason why it’s hard for spacefaring enthusiasts to push space up government agendas.

But the benefits in economic terms are clear. Stephen Dubner set these out in a fantastic article last year.

From 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.

Keith Cowing (founder and editor of and former NASA space biologist) adds:

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?

Human civilisations throughout history are judged by the power of their dreams. Do we have big enough dreams to spread our lineage, spread our DNA, spread our language, our ideas, and our bodies into space?

I hope so.

19 thoughts on “America’s Wilting Ambition

  1. Admit it. We will never travel to other Planets. This is fantasy. God created the Earth as a gift for us. If we trash it, that is our fault. The Sun has 5 billion years left. i think 5 bilion years is fair. For all life.

    I used to believe in humans finding the solution for space travel, but it will never happen. Like Pyramids, space travel is an extension of human ego. Like all over inflated ego’s they pop, when reality hits.

    • I don’t see any egotism about it. We came from space in the first place; the atoms in our bodies were cooked up in the hearts of stars and blasted across the cosmos in supernovae.

      It’s a choice. There is ample energy on earth for us to get off and mine the cosmos and to terraform other worlds. If we become absorbed by defeatism we stand no chance. I don’t know how long we have left, but eventually we will face resource bottlenecks, perhaps not quite like the Peak Oil people foresee. Only spacefaring can realistically defeat these bottlenecks.

  2. Could we be tested? If we decide to look, spread our DNA so to speak, would we be rewarded with a new paradise (Like the fantasy planet in Avartar) or punished?

    Perhaps when we organise our social world, and treat our poor and sick with kindness, then adopt scientific programmes to venture into space, then perhaps we deserve the promised planet.

    Until then the quest will be based on greed and power, just like Spains quest for the new world. Look at Spain now. A pariah state.

    If we left the new world alone, we would still have our “Avatar Planet” to visit. The Central American Rainforrests and beaches would be a wonderful place to visit. Untouched and with a modern respect for its preservation. Think of the Inca Gold. Wonderul to look at!

    • Very interesting point. But I’ll take Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence over Pandora, I think. There are more and better Pandoras out there. And then there are places like Mars, that we could terraform into such a thing.

      Humanity is not solely a destroyer.

    • I admire your stance; and yes, in a perfect world, we would take care of the needy before embarking on things that might seem more trivial or not as urgent such as space exploration. However, you have to realize that in our modern day and age, corporations have a lot of power to persuade political figures through various lobby groups in order to enact this or that policy. I’m not saying that corporations rule the world, but they do have a certain degree of influence (some much more so than others) and pretending that that is not the case is a fallacy.

      All ethical, honorable and moral issues aside, healing all the sick and giving money to the poor is not a viable business model. So, corporations look for any legal loophole to exploit and circumvent any law they can and find the cheapest possible labour source available, often exposing their employees in abhorrent work conditions. This is nothing new; it has gone on for centuries; although the disparities don’t cease to increase. Slaves, for instance, had at least their food and shelter provided for them, whereas today, there are many places on Earth (certain areas of countries in South America, Africa and Asia for example) where people are barely making any money at all; I’m not talking about merely living on a dollar or two a day; I’m talking about those living on a fraction of a dollar a day. Those sums are not enough for them to actually eat an adequate amount of food per day, hence we have rampant malnutrition, high rates of disease and mortality in all those regions.

      If you don’t think that practice still exists today, I highly recommend looking up the information on Google or watching a few documentaries (not always 100% accurate but better than not knowing at all). “The Corporation” would be a place to start.

      My point is this: If we focus all our resources on Earth alone, chances are a fair amount of money will be spent on destructive means such as wars (the likes of Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Bechtel and Halliburton make billions every time the U.S. goes to war with another country) and the further exploitation of the world’s poorest people. While space exploration won’t fix all those problems in an instant, if companies can be persuaded that it is in their best interest to go ahead with space exploration, I would wager that we would see a significant decline in the unrest in the world.

      Space exploration is not merely about ego (while I don’t deny that it doesn’t contribute to some extent); it’s about pushing ourselves to our limits, innovation, and perhaps then, the poor will stand a better chance than they do today, to actually improve their lives. Even if “space jobs” don’t get shipped to the slums of India, I’m certain that poor people would fare better than if tensions keep rising between Iran and the West.

      As always, great post Aziz!

        • Thanks. One day the intellectual and moral elite will heard the sheeple and punish the wicked, and we’ll have paradise on Earth. I hope this happens before we destroy this planet and its beauty. If we destroy it we deserve our fate of fie and brimstone so to speak.

          But maybe if we are lucky, the truly good will be “Saved” and taken to another place or dimension.

          I live my life according to morals and principles that serve both the religious god, and a higher intelligence outside our spiritual bounds. Just in case 😉

  3. Spending on space project at the worst creates nothing.
    Spending on wars create destruction – negative creativity.
    I hope our leaders are wise enough to understand this simple fact. Space expeditions are actually better Keynesian stimuli than military-Keynesianism, either in the short-term or medium-to-long-term. And, guessing on the utter failure of Korean space expedition program NARO, an economy of GDP $ 1 trillion or around seems too small for these projects. Global superpowers like America, supported by a wide variety of nations, seem to be the only ones “strong” enough to engage in exploring the universe.

  4. “Space expeditions are actually better Keynesian stimuli than military-Keynesianism, either in the short-term or medium-to-long-term.”

    If those aggregate shekels are adjustable…without equivocation, I agree and choose space exploration over empire with drastic inverse-proportionality.

    Space exploration, in the absolute, HOWEVER, engenders far LESS passion.

    • I don’t see why this is absolute. Military adventurism flourishes on nationalism. Space exploration can surely flourish on the same thing. After all, that’s what the Apollo program was built on. We just need clearly defined and comprehensible objectives.

  5. As much as I am a HUGE fan of all things space-related, it seems to me that finding out how DNA got here on our planet is much more important than taking our DNA off it. It appears a mathematical certainty that not even a mildly complex protein could be formed by chance, let alone RNA or DNA, yet they are here. Moreover, as Jeremy Narby points out in Cosmic Serpent, snakes (oftentimes intertwined) figure in the creation stories of most societies world-wide; what else brings knowledge & creation, and resembles intertwined snakes?

    Exploring the likely extraterrestrial origins of DNA is the lowest-cost, highest-ROI space program we could ever undertake.

    • Well one plausible experiment that could be a happy side-effect of asteroid mining is that many scientists strongly suspect that we would find frozen amino acids, suggesting that such things were cooked up in supernovae. So getting onto an asteroid and doing some analysis of what it is made of (essential too for resource extraction) would probably go some way to answering some questions regarding the origin of life.

  6. I know it is not fashionable to talk of God and ‘religion’ in this time. Human beings have the potential to be very noble or the potential to be like animals in human form. The cultures that we have currently in the world, the one that is dominant encourages the animal or beastly lower aspect of the human personality, we mostly only believe in a material existence, we reject and deny ‘the spiritual’. If matter is all there is, then the most each of us should aim for is to be ‘top dog’ in our short life spans….this means the more we gain for ourselves the better, and we are not responsible about who we hurt or exploit, the weak and the poor are destined to fail by ruthless ‘nature’. Corporations are sociopaths we are all contributing to this culture and destroying ourselves and the natural environment.

    If humans individually and as cultures cultivate their higher noble selves, care for the weak and the poor, respect the natural environment and divest themselves of greed and anxiety for provision, we are worth saving. Man is only a flash, 80 years seems long, in fact it is a blink of an eye when compared to geological time, if those 80 years are spent trying to become great in material egotistic terms, when you die you leave it all behind and your soul ends up in a hell, if you spend it serving the creation and divesting your ego, when you die you go to heaven. How do I know this? Revelations and Prophets have been sent to humanity by God. How do I know this? Read the so called Revealed Books with a open heart and with sincerity and you will be Guided by the Spirit.

    • I am reading an intersting book at the moment.

      Moses Hess:Prophet of Communism and Zionism by Shlomo Avineri.

      Hess feels that Spinoza is the new Messiah.

      i.e. Proper Anarchic Communism is the second coming, the new age.

      When spiritual worship and government control (Judaic Principles) is instilled, humans will achieve spiritual growth, eventually abandoning government (Anarchy)

      Hess claims that Christianity abandoned the real world for the spiritual, and as a result the real world is collapsing (1850’s Europe)

      Would a world where every child is educated, is brought up in a happy environment, suffers no poverty, has no reason for malice nor want to hurt; work?

      Or were these “Prophets” idealists? False Phophets? Do humans have “defective” genes requiring Government control.

      I would like to believe that humans have this capability, Perhaps the ones with this capability could invest in their own “Space” program.

  7. Pingback: The Shape of Regulatory Capture « azizonomics

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