It’s an exciting time for space exploration. New startups like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin have changed the way the space game works with commercialization and new innovations like reusable rockets. NASA has committed to return to the moon by 2024, and with NASA’s successful Feb. 18 landing of the Mars Perseverance rover, things are looking up for space geeks.
Of course, whenever attention is drawn to NASA’s work, there is always the infallible response from critics. Shouldn’t we be using the billions of dollars that NASA gets to actually improve the situation on Earth instead of spending it on frivolous accomplishments?
After all, the Perseverance rover alone cost $2.4 billion, according to CNBC. We could probably spend that on something more important, such as fixing climate change.
To which we should say, no.
First, the U.S. budget doesn’t function that way; you can’t just redirect funds from agency to agency. Each project that has spending allocated to it has to be approved by Congress year by year. Agencies’ spending is not linked in that way. A climate change agency could easily request the same amount of money as NASA from Congress, which would evaluate the plan to see if money should be budgeted to it.
But that’s more of a procedural point. The main argument against funding NASA is that federal funds should not be used for pointless projects that don’t benefit the people.
However, let’s bring in some facts. Most people overestimate the actual budget that NASA gets from the U.S. government. Before I give you the figure, take a guess.
What percentage of the U.S. budget do you think NASA gets?
The answer is about 0.5% of all U.S. spendings, according to NASA’s website.
For comparison, approximately 15% of this U.S. budget goes to military spending, according to the U.S. Department of Defense website.
NASA is not “hogging” the U.S. budget. We are completely capable of improving the world without cutting into NASA’s comparatively small share of money.
NASA adds a decent amount of the U.S. Gross National Product (GDP) and jobs compared to its budget, and also takes on a significant amount of world-benefiting projects, such as NASA’s SMAP project to improve global agriculture with satellite and climate measurements, or the ISS, which is constantly conducting experiments that can’t be done anywhere else.
This brings us to NASA’s main benefit. NASA, by furthering our scientific capability as a country, has a significant impact on long-term human development that is arguably greater than simply putting that money into other programs.
Scientific knowledge has an intrinsic value in and of itself; it’s worthy of chasing even if there were no other benefits.
But there are.
People have benefited worlds and worlds again from the development of engineering and science. And space exploration is a continuous extreme test of humanity’s skill in this area. Nothing sparks innovation and improvement like a test, except maybe a war.
So, even if Congress did fund another project with NASA’s money and that aided the world — ignoring the fact that humanitarian projects often work so ineffectively — the long-term benefits of gaining knowledge in scientific areas that could eventually be used for humanity’s benefit are possibly greater than anything you could do here and now.
For example, let’s look at satellites, which have had an immeasurable benefit to the world. Obviously, NASA does not fund the vast majority of the world’s satellites, but it’s undeniable that space exploration opened the doors for this technology, a door that might have stayed closed for far longer than it did.
Satellites are used for everything from a Global Positioning System to mapping and evaluating cropland (NASA’s SMAP project) to predicting hurricanes to planned, worldwide satellite-provided Internet such as SpaceX’s Starlink.
Other benefits are perhaps less quantifiable, but still important all the same. Innovations and technologies used by NASA have often found their way into the consumer market — CMOS chips used in most smartphone cameras, aerodynamic truck fairings, and baby formula just to name a few.
On a more philosophical note, if humanity ever wants to leave its cradle of the Earth and survive the inevitable death of the Sun, space exploration is the only way forward.
Fundamentally, it’s the next step forward in our evolution as a species, the next step to make history as multi-planetary life.
So, don’t begrudge NASA its budget. Exploration and scientific research will always be worth funding, and it’s how we got to the global empire of humanity we are today. Arguing that it should be put to other purposes is prioritizing short-term benefits over long-term gain. It’s a moot point to boot, since we really can and should do both — fund space exploration and solve our problems on Earth.
It’s not that hard to understand — it’s not rocket science. Oh wait, it is.
Originally published in the March 9 edition of the Octagon.