Why Waste Money on Space?

November 25, 2006 | By | 8 Replies More

I got riled up while reading the latest Utne Reader by an article by Keith Goetzman entitled “Houston, We Have a Problem“. He eloquently argues that we should stop wasting money on space research and spend it solving problems here on Earth.

Let’s look at the numbers. What fraction of a percent of our national budget is spent on space? NASA got about $16B in 2005 (including military allocations) out of $2,200B Federal revenues. That’s 0.72%, leaving only a paltry 99.28% to deal with problems here on Earth. I’m ignoring the record-high deficit spending that makes the NASA fraction even smaller. Look the numbers up yourselves. Check my assertions.

We could spend that little fraction on some other issues here at home. But how will we solve problems such as the next major asteroid impact? Yes, it will happen; we just won’t know when. How will we solve the problem of running out of {pick your resource}? Anything we need down here (or a reasonable substitute) can be found up there. After we build a space elevator, it would be cheaper to get it from up there than to dig it up here now! But, this project would necessarily be a crash program about as expensive as — and probably longer lasting than — a war in the middle east and it’s aftermath. Of course, the space elevator would employ a comparable number of people in a third world location that a hypothetical war on Iraq would kill for the same money.

Third World? A space elevator has to connect to the ground close to the equator. Columbia, Brazil, Congo, Kiribati, or some such. Most of the actual elevator work would be done in space, but a ground port and transportation thereto would be a big part of such a project.
But enough about war. There is no theoretical method of keeping our race alive beyond a big impact besides setting up an extraterrestrial enclave. This is not just a matter of technology. No matter what tools we may have here on Earth, we cannot stop a big enough incoming rock from exterminating us. However, a vigorous space program might be able to detect and deflect such a thing, much in the manner of some late 1990’s movies based on 1970’s ideas. Except that we don’t yet have the technology or space industry to actually do it.

Then, there is the issue of concentration of capital. I’m sure I’ll rant further on this later, but in brief: Collecting small amounts from many people allows governments (and some corporations) to do the Big Things that otherwise no one could afford to do. The antithesis of this is public entitlements. Taking the big capital amount, and spreading it out to the many people. Class action suits come to mind. You read about a Big Settlement, but the million plaintiffs each get $1/month for 18 months. The lawyers might get a third off the top. But, I digress.
We currently live in a rich enough country to be able to build for the long-term future. Yet many public voices argue for not “wasting” money on such projects when it could be spent on bigger grain subsidies or more food stamps. In the short term (for the next election) these voices are very persuasive. China has plans to build a moon base. They are capable of planning for the long term, and the rising fraction of Chinese names in cutting edge scientific papers published in the U.S. attests to their ability. America may no longer be leading the way, but we can still contribute to the long term survival of our species.

Assuming, of course, that this is a good thing.

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Category: Economy, Energy, Environment, global warming, Iraq, Science, Technology, The Middle East, War

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A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (8)

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  1. Jason Rayl says:

    The thing dweebs who complain about "wasting money on space" never quite seem to realize is, that the money would not be reallocated to whatever they think is worthwhile, but would, the way of Washington D.C., simply disappear. There would be no net gain for another program that could be traceable to the cancellation of space research. Happens that way in military R & D all the time.

    So we might as well back something cool while we can. The poor ain't gonna get that green, whether we go to Mars or not.

  2. NASA and the space inductry is the problem. We could get a lot farther a lot faster if we subsudized Jim Mccanney or Burt Rutan. NASA is about keeping me and you outa space, and making a bunch of money doing it.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Larry has a point. Nasa has grown from a sciences-directed organization to a politically-controlled bureaucracy. That's why the Space Shuttle is still a kludge of 1970's compromises, and the Challenger was launched even when all the tech departments had said, "no", because Reagan wanted to use it in his speech that night.

    Private industry may well be the way of the future in space. But they need to get the seed money for serious space ventures from somewhere. Only so many billionaires will opt to joyride.

  4. hogiemo says:

    I've often thought that private ventures would be the future of space. I have some ideas about how to do it but, no funds.

    So maybe Vegas will give us a line on whether someone will build a faster than light spacecraft. Someone will make a bet, laying down the money now, give up the house portion, and will the proceeds to their posterity. If Vegas gives odds and takes bets, it'll get done! I'm betting that it'll happen by 2106, any takers? C'mon Ryal! Maybe there's a SF story here (an old plot idea of mine, swipe it, dude!).

    I think I know how to privately launch and service satellites, replace the parts to the Hubble, and finish the Space Station without shuttles, and at less cost than NASA does it, or the Europeans or Russians. Unfortunately, no start up funds.

  5. Jason Rayl says:

    It's been some time since I checked, but at one time the hold-up for private space flights was a federal requirement that such flghts–manned flights, that is–be licensed. The kicker? There was no department in existence from which such a license could be obtained.

    It's changing slowly, but for a long time the federal government really didn't want anyone else up there.

  6. Check out http://www.jmccsci.com He will give you an eye opener. The FAA is the department that now licsences space ventures, which is why anybody that is serious is going offshore. Taking, or allowing the military into space first is a bad mistake. Would you take a knife to a gunfight?

  7. Jason Rayl says:

    Oh for–!

    If that's what passes for legitimate science in your book, I can see this will be a pointless exchange in future. Weather manipulation by laser satellite? This is in the GMAFB category (Give Me A F*** Break).

    I suppose this is offered as an alternative to Global Warming?

    Sad. Really sad.

  8. yo momma says:

    NASA and the space inductry is the problem. We could get a lot farther a lot faster if we subsudized Jim Mccanney or Burt Rutan. NASA is about keeping me and you outa space, and making a bunch of money doing it.

    Reply

    Dan Klarmann says:

    November 26, 2006 at 9:08 pm

    Larry has a point. Nasa has grown from a sciences-directed organization to a politically-controlled bureaucracy. That’s why the Space Shuttle is still a kludge of 1970’s compromises, and the Challenger was launched even when all the tech departments had said, “no”, because Reagan wanted to use it in his speech that night.

    Private industry may well be the way of the future in space. But they need to get the seed money for serious space ventures from somewhere. Only so many billionaires will opt to joyride.

    Reply

    hogiemo says:

    November 27, 2006 at 9:40 am

    I’ve often thought that private ventures would be the future of space. I have some ideas about how to do it but, no funds.

    So maybe Vegas will give us a line on whether someone will build a faster than light spacecraft. Someone will make a bet, laying down the money now, give up the house portion, and will the proceeds to their posterity. If Vegas gives odds and takes bets, it’ll get done! I’m betting that it’ll happen by 2106, any takers? C’mon Ryal! Maybe there’s a SF story here (an old plot idea of mine, swipe it, dude!).

    I think I know how to privately launch and service satellites, replace the parts to the Hubble, and finish the Space Station without shuttles, and at less cost than NASA does it, or the Europeans or Russians. Unfortunately, no start up funds.

    Reply

    Jason Rayl says:

    November 27, 2006 at 10:34 am

    It’s been some time since I checked, but at one time the hold-up for private space flights was a federal requirement that such flghts–manned flights, that is–be licensed. The kicker? There was no department in existence from which such a license could be obtained.

    It’s changing slowly, but for a long time the federal government really didn’t want anyone else up there.

    Reply

    Larry J. Carter says:

    November 27, 2006 at 9:07 pm

    Check out http://www.jmccsci.com He will give you an eye opener. The FAA is the department that now licsences space ventures, which is why anybody that is serious is going offshore. Taking, or allowing the military into space first is a bad mistake. Would you take a knife to a gunfight?

    Reply

    Jason Rayl says:

    November 28, 2006 at 9:20 am

    Oh for–!

    If that’s what passes for legitimate science in your book, I can see this will be a pointless exchange in future. Weather manipulation by laser satellite? This is in the GMAFB category (Give Me A F*** Break).

    I suppose this is offered as an alternative to Global Warming?

    Sad. Really sad.

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