US should spend more on space

By Stefan Herlitz

(John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT)
(John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT)

In an age of budget battles, deficit hawking and massive ‘fiscal cliffs’ that recur multiple times per year, the very idea of increasing the funding of anything sounds preposterous. Why waste money shooting rockets into space when we could redirect that money towards anything else, or even save the money?

We have a looming national debt, ballooning entitlement programs, skyrocketing healthcare costs and any number of other budget problems to deal with, so why pump money into NASA?

Because the space program is just about the most perfect kind of government program there is. In the spirit of its motto, “For the Benefit of All”, NASA not only explores and studies other planets, but launches and manages a vast network of satellites around the globe that fulfill a range of purposes, from environmental research and weather prediction to GPS and communication.

It single-handedly manages numerous probes, orbiters and satellites that have been absolutely invaluable in scientific progress and its missions have produced innumerable new innovative technologies that pervade society today. Those include LEDs, artificial limbs, scratch-resistant lenses, highway safety grooves, baby food, water purification, solar panels and memory foam, which are but a small sample of innovations derived from NASA’s space program.

It doesn’t even cost very much. While the public believes that we as a nation spend 20 percent of our budget on the program, NASA funding only represents .5 percent of the national budget—40 times less than what we think we spend. The annual budget for NASA (as of 2012) is $18.8 billion per year—less than what Americans spend on pet food ($21 billion), military air conditioning for just one year during the Iraq war ($20 billion) and less than a quarter of what Americans spend on alcohol every year ($90 billion).

In addition, investment in NASA is an incredibly effective generator of economic activity—every dollar spent on NASA returned about $8 in economic benefits in 2008 and NASA creates permanent, skilled jobs across a wide variety of technical fields.

What’s even better is many of those new jobs are coming in the form of private-sector companies, rather than government employment. NASA’s program to contract out construction of new launch vehicles and International Space Station resupply missions to private companies has resulted in the rapid formation of a private space industry, one that is shockingly efficient.

In just over a decade, SpaceX, founded by PayPal and Tesla Motors creator Elon Musk, has drastically reduced the cost of launching cargo into space and significantly decreased both the cost and development time of new rockets, making space more accessible than ever before.

There was a time long ago when we, locked in competition with the Soviet Union, made a national effort to put a man on the moon and did it in less than a decade, which not only invigorated national pride but also left a legacy of technological innovation that persists to this day.

Let’s do it again. In the words of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, “Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar examined, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shoveled, drilled into, baked and even blasted. Still to come: Mars being stepped on.”

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]