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.