Why we need NASA

By Mike Tudoreanu

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Humanity dreams of space. Our popular culture is filled with it: “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “Stargate,” “Battlestar Galactica” and enough spin-offs and merchandise to fill a large lunar crater. We know we want to go there. It is in our nature to be curious, to explore, to sail over the horizon. But while the dreams are flourishing, the real thing is dying. Since the 1970s, we have never been anywhere as far as the Moon. Instead, astronauts have been hanging around in low Earth orbit, where everyone has gone before. And the number of spacecraft capable of carrying human beings has been dwindling. This year, the last of the American space shuttles will be retired. The sturdy old Soyuz spacecraft, designed and built in the Soviet Union, will be our last remaining link to the stars. Some people are even calling for closing down the entire NASA space program, as part of the whole budget cutting fad. Presumably it’s not enough to extinguish the American Dream and young people’s hopes to have a better life than their parents have. We must kill the dreams of adventure and discovery too. It is a shameful and stupid idea.

First of all, the money spent on NASA is a drop in the ocean compared to total government spending. For instance the NASA budget for 2011 stands at around $18.7 billion. By comparison, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing us $159.3 billion in 2011, the total Pentagon budget this year is $548.9 billion, President Barack Obama’s tax cut extension will cost $200-500 billion and the bailout of the banks cost $700 billion. In other words, NASA can take us to the final frontier for a fraction of the cost of the Bush tax cuts, or the same amount of money it takes to occupy a few mountains and bomb a few villages in the Afghan countryside. I’d call that a bargain. Even in the 1960s, when the space program received about twice as much funding as today (adjusted for inflation), President Kennedy pointed out that NASA’s budget was smaller than the amount of money Americans spent on cigarettes every year.

So there is absolutely no excuse for attacking NASA on spending grounds. But there are some preachers of unrestrained capitalism who attack it on ideological grounds, simply because it is a government agency. They believe that private enterprise can take us into space, and point to such recent developments as the first private sub-orbital flight (in 2004) and the growth of space tourism. I really don’t see what’s so exciting about the fact that private companies finally managed, in 2004, to do what the government had been doing since the early 1960s.

On the other hand, space tourism is making money; that is true. But it relies on government-created and government-funded technology. The first space tourist was taken into Earth orbit in 2001 by a Soyuz spacecraft. It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the free market when your business has to rely on Soviet technology, is it? And in any case, tourism is never going to help us push the boundaries of a new frontier. The whole point of exploration (in space or anywhere else) is that you have to go off into the unknown and put your life on the line.

That’s not what tourists are after. America was not discovered by people looking for a dream holiday.

The fact is that private companies, market forces and the profit motive cannot take us beyond the confines of Earth. Exploration in general, throughout human history, was always supported first and foremost by governments. Christopher Columbus was funded by the Spanish state. The great Chinese explorer Zheng He was sponsored by the Ming government when he sailed across the Indian Ocean. There are good reasons why it was always this way.

Private companies will only agree to do something if they can expect to make a profit from it. But how can you know if discovering a new land is profitable before you’ve actually discovered it? You don’t know what the new land might hold – sometimes you don’t even know if the new land exists. It’s not like gambling on the stock market, where you can calculate risk projections and expected returns. Private companies (especially banks) are perfectly willing to gamble, as long as they know the odds. But the thing about exploration is that you don’t know the odds. You just have to leap into the unknown, and history shows that the first voyage to a new land tends to be extremely unprofitable. After the new land has been discovered and charted, then there may be profit opportunities and private business might join in. But not before.

Space exploration is likely to be even more unprofitable than sailing across the oceans of Earth, for two reasons. First, it requires huge upfront investments (building a spaceship is far more expensive than building a boat), and it’s difficult to imagine any way that a private space company could recover those costs. Second, there are no people to trade with – or steal from – at the other end of the voyage. We will have to build everything ourselves once we get there. We may find mineral resources, but the same minerals could also be found on Earth.

So then, if there is no money to be made in space, why go there? Because adventure is what fuels our imagination and our culture. Because if we stop wondering what lies beyond the next hill, if we turn inward, we will wither and die. And also for a much more pragmatic reason: There are a lot of us on Earth, and our population keeps growing. It would be a good idea to find a new place to settle. In the very long term, our Sun will grow and become hostile to life on Earth, so we will have to find a new place to settle. Might as well start now. Whatever the reason, NASA – or another government agency like it – is the only thing capable of taking humanity to the final frontier. That is why we need it.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].