Is the Space Program Worth It?

A few days ago on the way to work I was listening to Dirk Van’s show and he posed an interesting question to the listeners. Is the space program worth it?

Most said that it was, for a variety of reasons. Some of them posed were national pride, research that is done, and there were others.

I remember visiting the Kennedy Space Center several years ago. I loved the museums filled with the rockets and equipment used to explore space. I also was able to walk through the area where they were working on the International Space Station. I was with my father and he said to me “this has got to be a black hole of money here”. I couldn’t argue. I assume that NASA is run like any other government program, and is rife with waste.

The benefits of the space program are many. So many of the things that we use every day that we take for granted have been either invented or improved due to the space program.

But can’t we build a structure that can hold a perfect vacuum here on earth for a LOT cheaper and do the research there? Like for say, a billion dollars? For fiscal year -09, NASA’s budget was almost $18bb!

Do we need the weightless part to get the good research done?

Can’t private industry or individuals look for life on other planets?

I would love to hear from some of our scientists who read the blog as well as others on this subject.

27 thoughts on “Is the Space Program Worth It?”

  1. “Do we need the weightless part to get the good research done?”

    Yes. Strictly speaking it’s microgravity.

    “But can’t we build a structure that can hold a perfect vacuum here on earth for a LOT cheaper and do the research there?”

    Space is not a vacuum. We’re not going there for that. Cf. weightless.

    Here’s the funny thing. Going to the moon was absolutely useless in and of itself except as a national pride objective. But all the technology that was developed along the way would have never been funded piecemeal. One of the best ways to get new technology is to give a bunch of really smart people some money and give them some arbitrary goal that seems completely impossible. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.

    The best example of this is the old Bell Labs. Much of our current technological advancement (transistor, laser, fiber optics, and on and on and on) is living off the corpse of that organization. No one is really doing that now.

    If we really want to cut NASA’s budget may I suggest GISS and Hansen?

  2. Every now and then there used to come round an invitation along the lines of “Can anyone invent an experiment to do under zero gravity? NASA really are short of ideas and they need some experiments to justify all that expense.”

  3. It’s really hard to make money off of basic science that doesn’t lead to directly to new technology in the near short term. It took nearly 30 years before the Theory of Relativity produced some useful technology. Prior to that there was no economic incentive to fund the development of the theory or (more importantly) to fund the experiments that would test it. The feedback loop between discovery and profitable technology is simply to long in most cases.

    Most of the scientific work done in the free-market is merely the last (but very important) stage of turning public domain scientific knowledge into technology that the free-market can sell. Bell labs for example, mostly took the previous 30 years of research into quantum physics and turned them into technologies like transistors. It is unlikely that Bell would have produced much had they been required to fund all that research internally.

    Spending on NASA is like spending on the military. Yes it produces a lot of nifty technology and knowledge but it clearly isn’t the most efficient way to go about it from an economic perspective.

    Usually missing from these discussion is the fact that private space travel is a huge multi-billion dollar a year business supported almost entirely by the free-market. The primary resource in space isn’t weightlessness, its space itself. Specifically, its space way up above the earth for things like communication satellites and various types of earth directed sensors. (Weather satellites alone could have paid for a complete unmanned space program had we been able to actually sell weather information for what it is worth.)

    The private space industry makes billions in profits every year but nobody sees it because the thing they are moving to orbit and back is massless information instead of people and objects. Big parts of the modern world would not work if we did not have a large scale private space industry.

    I would say the real problem with private funding of space actually comes back to the old problem of how to sell information. Communication satellites sell the moving of information not the information itself. Weather and other sensor satellites sell unique and perishable information that has to be repurchased continuously and even so its hard to really get paid. We don’t have a way of selling information about how much water is at the lunar poles.

  4. We don’t have a way of selling information about how much water is at the lunar poles.

    Google Earth

    And note that Richard Branson is selling tickets for tourist trips to the outer atmosphere.

    Let free markets work. Nasa is the USPS of outer space. End the monopoly.

  5. I don’t accept the argument about “spinoffs”, that the space program gave us Tang Instant Breakfast Drink and Velcro and is hence worth the bazillions of dollars.

    But . . .

    Space is ultimately about resources. And there are different places in “Space” with different resources. There is Earth orbit with resources of 1) high vacuum, 2) the high ground, and 3) microgravity.

    So far, the resources of Earth orbit space that have had significant national impact is one resource: the high ground. The high ground has been utilized for two purposes: looking at Earth from space, putting radio antennas in space. So the “high ground of space” has given us spy satellites, which LBJ once remarked paid for the whole enterprise in terms of the national security benefit, remote sensing, GPS, satellite TV. Important national defense and commercial use.

    The one thing that didn’t pan out was that people had to be in space to do all of those things, but at one time it was thought that a comsat had to have crew changing the vacuum tubes, a milsat had to have “blue suits” operating the camera. It turns out that robotic spacecraft pretty much satisfy all of the needs for exploiting the high ground of Earth orbit space as a resource, and maybe, this follows from the invention of the transistor, are maybe this is a self-spinoff, that the tech from the space program put space men and women out of a job.

    The microgravity and high vacuum resources are a bit iffy if they have lead to anything or will lead to anything, and they have been the justification for the expense of crews in space to date.

    Another potential resource of Earth orbit space is base-load solar electric power beamed back to Earth. It is not clear whether that one ultimately requires people in space. A more speculative resource of asteroid belt space is the putative bonanza of platinum and other metals that are otherwise rare on Earth and have important applications in energy systems (platinum, paladium, cobalt, nickel for fuel cells or catalytic converters or even coal-to-oil conversion or biofuels). In the near term, robotic exploration is justified to determine whether this resource is even out there in the abundance that is guessed at.

  6. Oh, one more thing.

    Remember how some say that atomic weapons should not have been used on Imperial Japan, that an atomic bomb should have been detonated on a prearranged desert island as a “demonstration” and a threat “you’re next!”

    Well, we didn’t go the “demonstration” route with Japan, but we indeed went the “demonstration” route with the Russians, inviting representative for the Bikini island “Crossroads” blast. Given the vastness and dispersed nature of the Soviet Union, Crossroads left the Russians somewhat unimpressed.

    Apollo, on the other hand, was another “demonstration” aimed at the Russians. It was “If we can do this, just think of how precisely we can place H-bombs on all of the places in your country.” Was it worth the money from the military value of intimidating the Soviet Union? Hard to tell.

  7. Imagine if the question posted above was whether the National Computer Program was worth it; whether we needed government to be spending money on larger and more powerful vacuum tubes _OR_ are computers not really worth the expense?

    The first new hydrocarbon-fueled liquid rocket motor design to enter service on a launch vehicle in this country in something like forty years reached orbit last year. It was designed by SpaceX, a company with a far smaller budget than NASA, and partially derived from the FASTRAC engine project, which NASA cancelled back in the 90’s when they cancelled the X-34 testbed.

    Meanwhile, they continue to spend several times SpaceX’s budget annually on trying to make large launchers out of segmented solid rocket boosters.

  8. Was it worth the money from the military value of intimidating the Soviet Union? Hard to tell.

    Absolutely. The effect of the very public defeat of the Soviet Union in going to the moon had an impact on their self perception as well as on the perception of every third party. And it wasn’t close. No one in the Soviet Union thereafter asked, “If we can put a man on the moon why can’t we…” When Reagan threatened to build Star Wars, the Soviets knew they couldn’t believe the American professors who told them it wouldn’t work because we had gone to the moon and they hadn’t. Brezhnev knew they could roll through Prague because his generation had rolled through Berlin. And that remained his MO. But Gorbachev, not part of the Greatest Patriotic War Generation, knew of Berlin only second hand, but knew first hand that the Soviets wouldn’t beat Star Wars because they couldn’t put a man on the moon.

  9. The research angle may the the stated reason that many public figures support NASA. And of course, if that is actually the main reason to pay for NASA, of course the expense is not justified.

    The “invented or improved due to the space program” is hugely overstated. No, velcro, Tang, integrated circuits and memmory foam are not products that exist because of NASA. In some cases, NASA has claimed credit for DOD or private (bell labs) actions that NASA leveraged and supported for their missions and systems, but were in no way responsible for developing.

    But the unstated reason politicians and the majority of Americans still support space exploration has nothing to do with any of that, those are just the public pretexts for an unstated desire to still be a part of exploring a physical frontier.

    Much the way most Americans supported the Iraq invasion at the time, not because of the WMD pretexts specific to Iraq, but the unstated subtext (again, at the time 2 years after 9/11) to “hit back hard” at one of the supporters of global terrorism.

  10. Whatever NASA accomplished in years past, it hasn’t done anything, except spend enormous quantities of money for little effect, for a generation. I would be in favor of shutting it down.

    The Government ought to support pure research efforts like planetary science (e.g. Cassini) and astronomy (Hubble, Webb).

  11. NASA has done some things well (unmanned exploration of the Solar System, for example) and others quite poorly (the lack of a practical spaceplane and the sorry excuse for a space station we currently have). And it is true that we have derived great benefits from the technological spinoffs from the space program. But it is time to unleash the private sector. NASA should recall the benefits reaped by prizes offered in the early part of the 20th century to spur the development of aviation (one example of many; Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight was attempted in part to win the Orteig Prize) and follow suit to encourage private development of the technology we need to truly become a spacegoing species.

  12. “Imagine if the question posted above was whether the National Computer Program was worth it; whether we needed government to be spending money on larger and more powerful vacuum tubes _OR_ are computers not really worth the expense?”

    Actually, there was something akin to the “National Computer Program”, only it was called the Semi-Automated Ground Environment. A computer the size of a good-sized office building. And to the extent that Digital Equipment Corporation was a spinoff of the SAGE, and to the extend that a teen Bill Gates and his friends got time on a PDP-10 timesharing system by whatever means, I am sitting in front of a “spinoff” of the SAGE.

    Was the vacuum-tube magnetic-core memory SAGE worth it in terms of national defense? Story I heard is that the pre-Polaris US Navy was left out of the Strategic Nuclear forces, and their answer to get a seat at the table was a single-prop Douglas Skyraider, carrier launched, and equiped with long range fuel tanks and a single nuclear munition. They ran war games against the El Monte, CA Nike site (OK, Nike had its own radar and wasn’t SAGE, but it was part of the air defense net), and the Skyraider pilots simply flew in low “under the radar.” Those exercises pretty much showed the air defense system to be useless, or so some have stated.

    Was spending gumpzillions of dollars on SAGE worth it to have the desktop computer as a spinoff? But I think the SAGE/NASA analogy is apt, of having the government spend goshawful dollars on some incredibly expensive system in advance of a commercial market for the equivalent capability at that cost.

  13. I’d suggest that weather satellites all by themselves have paid for the space program many times over. How do you even begin to calculate the value of lives and property saved, much less convenience provided, by knowing the weather even a few days in advance and preparing for it?

  14. There was a public debate on this exact topic last week in NY; never mind the resulting vote (“for” keeping NASA), the debate arguments you mind find interesting.

  15. Aside from satellite research and development, I think the space program is the single largest waste of taxpayer money in history. Spending billions of dollars to find out if there was once water on Mars or the moon is outrageous in my opinion. There are enough issues that need attention here on our own planet.

  16. “Spending billions of dollars to find out if there was once water on Mars or the moon is outrageous in my opinion.”

    The best use of exploration of Mars would be a study of subsurface soil to see if there is evidence of microorganisms growing there. With the work on Archaea being done the past 20 years and the work of people like Craig Venter, there is a reasonable possibility that the terrestrial planets contain living organisms like the Archaea family here on earth. Practical applications are coming in the next 50 years with the use of such organisms to refine metallic ores and produce oil and gas hydrocarbons. Exotic compounds might even be found that are analogous. The extremophiles on earth may well have their counterparts on Mars and even the Moon. They will be well below the surface and can be identified using techniques used to identify them here. Unfortunately, no such capability was added to the spacecraft.

    A few links

    Some of those found on earth have quite bizarre metabolism.

  17. Needing to ask the question “Was it worth it?” shows just how much “it” is unfocused and unaccounted; in short, how much it is political. The true cost of a project is how much you had to give up doing because you chose to do that project.

    For government programs like “space”, the cost is the money spent and the private activities suppressed. The money spent (resources used) is not entirely accounted in what NASA spends, and possibly could have been spent on different things and in different ways. The power of the government goes beyond the budget, to suppress funding and permission for many other good ideas.

    Advancement comes from directed searches with risks and costs. History shows that these searches are best done by people with focused goals and private financing under free competition. This gives the best chance of advancing knowledge at the least cost. Put too simply, you get two private discoveries for the cost of one government discovery.

    I was a manager at a computer software company. People would sometimes come to me to request travelling to a computer show, at a cost of say $2,000. The purpose was to attend presentations on the newest developments. The justification was that merely one good idea would pay for most or all of the trip.

    I would reply most often, that buying a book, or even hiring a consultant, would supply new information and valuable ideas at much less cost, but with less fun.

    Tang (the orange drink powder), computers, vacuum experiments, and low gravity experiments might justify the costs of some space projects that seem entirely political. We’ll never know, because we didn’t trust a less-political, free market process to discover what was useful.

  18. These comments remind me of when Englishmen first went to the New World, to “Virginia”… hoping to find gold. They eventually found or invented things worth much more than the hoped-for gold, but those things were invisible until people settled there in numbers, and had time for human ingenuity and greed and artistry to work. The biggest “resource” discovered was in the form of people, and new ideas. (Think of the founding fathers, and the Constitution, etc.)

    All the discussions beforehand as to whether the wilderness on the other side of the Atlantic would “pay off” were pure hot air.

    We won’t know what space is worth, or even what it really is, until there are tens-of-thousands of people living there. Either in space habitats, or on other planets or moons or asteroids. Maybe it will all be worth little, maybe it will be valuable beyond our imaginings, but there is no way to know in advance. In that perspective, we have not yet done any space exploration.

    And until there is cheap transportation into orbit, the experiment can’t be run.

  19. The justification was that merely one good idea would pay for most or all of the trip.

    I would reply most often, that buying a book, or even hiring a consultant, would supply new information and valuable ideas at much less cost, but with less fun.

    My professor of surgery used to make this point with respect to attending medical meetings. That was 40 years ago. In recent years, as physicians’ disposable income declined, his advice has been taken by many many others. The number of big national meetings has declined and the surviving ones have reduced their duration. I haven’t seen an announcement for one of those medical cruise-meetings in a number of years.

  20. Space operations are definitely worth it – many, many times over. However, there are profound disconnects in our current space architecture. For example, the cost of the liquid propellant to put a pound of payload into orbit is just a few dollars. On the other hand, the launch cost is roughly $10,000 per pound. The reason: Our transportation is optimized for energy efficiency rather than economy. Historically this has to do with military missiles being the ancestors of today’s rockets. Most of the money goes into disposable hardware combined with huge ground handling costs for these very fragile launch vehicles. In principle, there is no reason that the transportation cost should be much more than $100/pound. EXCEPT, that payloads are very expensive ($100,000 per pound, typically), so we buy few of them and therefore there is little demand for transportation. Oddly enough, payloads are this expensive because we don’t have cheap transportation. We have a classic chicken and egg cycle here.

    The way to break the cycle is to use man’s extraordinary abilities to perform various activities on orbit. Particularly, this means doing the final assembly and check-out of spacecraft after orbiting the component parts. To be cost effective, these activities must be done in a shirt-sleeve environment. This means construction of appropriate facilities (the International Space Station is precisely the opposite of what is really required.) With on-orbit assembly the cost of space craft should diminish to a level where the number of spacecraft will skyrocket. The consequence will be ever increasing demand for cheap transportation to orbit. Thus, the current uneconomic cycle will be broken and mankind will be able to expand explosively into space.

    The benefits will be enormous: Many types of desired raw materials are plentiful in space and could be acquired very cheaply. Energy from the sun is also plentiful. And, the vacuum is an ideal place to dispose of all kinds of gaseous and liquid waste. I envision that large scale manufacturing of many products will rapidly develop. It is important to recognize, that integrated circuits require very dirty, energy intensive and vacuum intensive manufacturing. Clearly on-orbit manufacturing of these devices would be best. And so on, and on as far as human ingenuity will carry us. And, lets not forget freedom.

  21. To Chet Richards:

    You seem to have more insight and information than I do.

    I am against increasing or continuing public funding of space exploration or the public commercial development of space.

    But, you have my full support to clear the government out of the way, to allow commerical interests to explore and exploit space. Find your investors and go to it. Leave me out unless I can see a detailed prospectus and invest voluntarily.

  22. One problem with the question “is the space program worth it?” is that the space program is many different things. When I look at the details, I see lots of things that are obviously worth it (communications, military & weather satellites, the Hubble telescope, some of the probes, etc.) and other things that seem to consume huge sums of money to no obvious benefit (International Space Station, I’m looking at you!)

    On balance, the gain has been enormous. I’d also say we should factor in a non-trivial option value for potentially high-value future results. Nonetheless, it sure seems like the cost has added up to a pretty enormous number of dollars too. I’d be surprised if we couldn’t have gotten all the benefits at significantly lower cost… though I suppose that’s a lot easier to say in hindsight.

  23. Shannon, heres a book for you to read

    In the particular case of the transistor, the experimentalists were way out ahead of the theorists.

    But we are in basic agreement. Many worthwhile inventions come from funding things that are considered “worthless” at the time. That means that 999 out of 1000 research dollars are “wasted”. Ah, but that 1000th dollar pays for it all. But private money isn’t “into” that.

  24. Andrew M Garland,

    There is another angle to “clearing the government out of the way” that we have, alas, forgotten.

    In the 1920’s we had another “chicken and egg” dilemma. All attempts at commercial airlines failed, because planes like of the time were too small and uncomfortable to generate much passenger traffic. And without traffic there was no profit in developing better bigger planes.

    The US government broke the log-jam by providing generous subsidies for carrying air mail, making marginal enterprises profitable for the first time, and able to buy better planes.

    Government didn’t decide what planes should be built, or bought, or how they should be used. Which is a very good thing, because much of our air superiority in WWII came from civilian technology, like 4-engine transports, which “government experts” in the Air Corps had no interest in.

    Here’s an old post I wrote with more detail.

  25. I liked the post about the airmail contract. When I was a college student, I read all of Earnest Gann’s novels including one about the airmail pilots. In one of his stories in his autobiographical book, “Fate is the Hunter,” he wrote about flying a DC 2 on one flight when they were scheduled to fly a DC 3. He commented that they ran into heavy icing conditions and it was only luck, or fate, that they had the DC 2 which had much greater capacity for carrying ice.

    About 25 years ago, I was visiting Friday Harbor Washington and drove by his farm where he had lived for years.

    His novels about the early days of aviation are excellent.

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