Why a new space race is absolutely worth the cost
Updated: Feb 17
Last month NASA kicked off the Artemis program with the successful launch of its SLS rocket, promising our eventual return to the moon and beyond. This, along with a number of prominent test flights and missions in recent years, has reignited a long-running debate over whether venturing into uncharted space has any practical value to humans here on Earth. The answers are far from straightforward, but research in this area is abundant and ongoing, providing useful insights as we attempt to justify the existence of current and future space programs. Here, I argue that space exploration is not only worthwhile, but incredibly valuable in terms of scientific, educational, and economic potential. It may even be necessary for the future of our species.
Source - Midjourney
Every year my students and I discuss space exploration as one of our physics units. This usually ends with a debate of varying depth and quality, but even at the best of times, I find that student arguments and conclusions are relatively superficial and myopic. Humans in general are pretty awful at making long-term decisions, but young people in particular seem to fail spectacularly in this regard. My opinion is that they simply haven't lived long enough to fully appreciate the idea that significant changes have occurred and will continue to occur in the far future. This article is my attempt to expose the complexities associated with space exploration and, in broader terms, encourage people to consider how a space program benefits them.
"As a science teacher, I hope that my students are as inspired as I am by the next wave of missions to the moon and beyond, whether they choose to pursue related careers or not."
Costs and benefits
I think one of the primary reasons space exploration remains controversial is that the costs are so well-defined while the benefits are not. NASA's annual budget peaked in the mid-60s at a little over 4% of total U.S. government spending. It has remained consistently below 1% ever since. In 2020, $22.6 billion was given to NASA, which sounds like a lot, but this was only 0.3% of America's $6.6 trillion in total spending. Compare this to the $1.28 trillion in funds available for the department of defense in the same year - nearly 20% of total funds! It's worth noting that NASA's annual budget has been increasing in recent years, projected at $25.4 billion in 2023, but this is still low when compared with other departments.
Source - https://www.planetary.org/space-policy/nasa-budget
Source - https://www.researchgate.net/figure/NASA-budget-as-percent-of-total-federal-budget-based-on-a-figure-originally-appearing-in_fig1_268078377
There's no question that space exploration is a risky business. Despite extremely high safety standards, some missions still result in a tragic loss of life, such as the 1986 Challenger explosion that killed all 7 crew members. Even so, being an astronaut is not as dangerous as you might expect. An interesting mortality study including all of the 360 astronauts trained between 1959 and 2017 found that 80 of them had died. Of these, 15 had perished in accidents involving spacecraft, while 14 died as a result of plane crashes (presumably test flights rather than commercial flights). This accidental death rate is, as you might expect, quite a bit higher than that of the general population, especially amongst the earliest generation of astronauts. Things get interesting, however, when you look at the natural death rates for these individuals, which were less than half of those for the general population. This is thought to be attributed to their excellent physical condition and access to superior medical care. Taken together, the researchers found that astronauts are actually less likely to die of any cause when compared with the average person, particularly if you focus on more recent decades where accidents have been far less common.
"Quite simply, we might need space exploration to prevent the extinction of our species."
Astronauts aren't the only people involved in space research, of course. Technicians, maintenance workers, and civilians have also died as a result of rocket tests and other accidents, totaling 158 deaths. While every death is significant, this rate still seems quite low, but it's hard to know exactly how many people are actually working in the aerospace industry. According to the National Safety Council, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting is actually the most dangerous industry based on death rates per 100,000 workers, followed by mining, transportation, and construction.
Here's where things start to get messy as you can't directly measure how much return you get on your space investments. Instead, we have to rely on estimates which are based on dozens of assumptions, some of them poorly defined. Even so, current estimates suggest a return on investment value of anywhere from 7:1 to 40:1, which is exceptional. By comparison, research from various economic sources suggests that spending on defense has an ROI of only about 2:1.
NASA's Economic Impact Report, published in 2022, gives an excellent breakdown of the economic benefits the organization generates and provides convincing justification for its continued support. It's a brisk read at only 3783 pages, so here are a few highlights from the report:
NASA has just under 18,000 employees, but the organization directly creates or supports nearly 340,000 jobs nationwide (18 jobs created for each NASA employee)
NASA generates an estimated $71.2 billion in economic outputs annually (compare that to the organization's 2022 budget of $24 billion)
NASA generates an additional $7.7 billion in tax revenues annually
The organization makes significant contributions to scientific research and technology, including climate change research
Another concept worth mentioning is the idea of resource harvesting from space for use directly or returning to Earth. Asteroids are the obvious target here, with ridiculous potential values of up to $27 quintillion USD based on quantities of both common and precious metals. If evenly distributed, every person on Earth would receive $3.6 billion! Of course, we are a long way from realizing any form of space mining, but there is little doubt that with those kinds of profits, progress will continue in this area.
A common argument against investments in space exploration is that money would be better spent on other programs that would improve or protect our own planet, rather than some distant one. Some people even assert that space exploration and environmentalism are at odds with each other. This article provides several counterarguments for that, namely that we need to fund space exploration as a means of protecting the environment from long-term threats. Besides, there is no real reason why we can't support multiple programs simultaneously, particularly when the benefits of a space program relative to their costs are so significant. We should absolutely assess all spending based on the potential benefits and adjust accordingly, but space exploration deserves to be included in any budget.
Quite simply, we might need space exploration to prevent the extinction of our species. Earth's resources are finite, including the fossil fuels which currently provide much of the world's energy and almost all of its transportation needs. According to research by Stanford's MAHB, or Millenium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere, oil reserves will run out first in as little as 30 years, followed by gas and coal, both in less than a century. What then? With rising populations and climate change, fundamental resources such as water will almost certainly become scarce as well.
Alongside dwindling natural resources, the current war in Ukraine has reminded us that the threat of nuclear war is ever present. Of course, there are many other things that could end the human race, so here's a fun list of all the ways we could die out in case you need further reading on the subject. As the influential astrophysicist Stephen Hawking suggested in 2017, "Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth." Mars may not be the salvation we need, but it at least provides proof of concept and will help us learn what it takes to survive in an alien environment.
"Ignorance may be bliss, but it has never been a path to progress or meaningful change."
In case you think it selfish that we should be focused solely on humanity's fate, consider another branch of space research dedicated to detecting and diverting asteroids. Evidence suggests that an asteroid at least 1km in diameter strikes the Earth every 500,000 years. This probably wouldn't end life on our planet, but it would still be very significant. A real planet-killer, the kind that was most likely responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would have to be closer to 10km across or more. The good news is that we are now learning and testing how we can adjust the trajectory of asteroids, as seen in September 2022 with NASA's successful DART mission to redirect the asteroid Dimorphos. The bad news is that we are sometimes scarily bad at detecting such asteroids, although we are discovering more all the time. NASA estimates that two-thirds of all near-Earth objects (NEOs) greater than 140m in diameter have yet to be discovered. If a large asteroid with an Earth-bound trajectory can be diverted in the future, it may well be the single greatest thing we have ever done for the planet and the organisms that live here. It wouldn't quite make up for all the not-so-great things we've done, however.
It shouldn't be news to anyone that the space program has been responsible for a wide variety of technologies and innovations. Often times the applications of these inventions are unrelated to the purpose they were originally designed for. NASA calls these 'spinoff' technologies, which you can read about here. Just about every industry has been affected by space research, from medicine to computer science. Here is a small sample of technologies that were developed in whole or in part as a result of space exploration:
LASIK technology (used in eye surgery)
fire resistant materials
Of course, there are loads of other, much more specific technologies and materials that probably only have applications within a narrow range of industries, but there is a good chance that many of the products you use in your everyday life have been influenced by the space program.
Space exploration has many potential benefits for society, not least of which includes the tantalizing possibility of finding answers to some of humanity's most fundamental and profound questions. What is the nature of gravity? How and where did life originate? Are we alone in the universe? How did our universe begin, and how will it end? Many, if not all of these questions can only be answered by venturing elsewhere in our solar system and beyond. While you could argue that solving these problems may not directly improve the lives of people, I would tend to disagree. Humans are innately curious. We have been asking these same questions for thousands of years and are unlikely to stop searching for the truth. Ignorance may be bliss, but it has never been a path to progress or meaningful change.
"There is little doubt that watching the 1969 moon landing inspired a generation of scientists and engineers..."
Exploring space is difficult. When humans are involved, the problems are multiplied, but manned missions would seem to be inevitable given our current goals in space. In order to solve the myriad problems facing current and future celestial explorers, we will need the combined knowledge and technological resources of every human, regardless of which country or organization they belong to. As long as our goals are aligned, the exploration of space could be a uniting force for humanity, helping us bridge gaps in language, nationality, and ideology. The first space race was motivated by competition - America versus the Soviets - but this time is different. Our journey to Mars will be a cooperative endeavor between private and public entities, potentially involving dozens of countries and every space agency around the world.
Closer to home, we are finding that we can benefit from space research in unexpected ways. For example, a case study on JAXA, the Japanese space agency, has suggested that understanding how humans behave in the kind of isolated and confined conditions common in space has applications here on Earth. This knowledge has been used to help develop quarantine procedures for high-risk influenza patients, and undoubtedly influenced the Japanese response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. In a country prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons, it can also aid in the planning and design of evacuation centers.
Perhaps the hardest factor to estimate is the extent to which space exploration inspires young people to pursue STEM careers. There is little doubt that watching the 1969 moon landing inspired a generation of scientists and engineers, but how can this be measured? Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find much in this regard. We may never be sure how many students have been influenced by a love for space and for the space program itself, but certainly, the answer is more than zero.
In more concrete terms, apparently, 43 million students across 49 countries have participated in research taking place aboard the ISS. In some cases, the students themselves even designed experiments to be used there. For sure communications technology has helped bring live space coverage to the devices of anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy. To their credit, NASA and other space agencies have done a good job in recent years of improving public access and the quality of their content. Who can forget this brilliant viral David Bowie cover from a few years ago?
Spending on space exploration appears to be worthwhile based on nearly every metric that can be measured, and some that can't. Unfortunately, most of the data I have examined here is based on NASA and the American space program, but presumably other space agencies around the world should experience similar benefits and returns.
As a science teacher, I hope that my students are as inspired as I am by the next wave of missions to the moon and beyond, whether they choose to pursue related careers or not. I'm not old enough to have experienced the original moon landings, but I'll definitely be watching this time, and I hope I'm still around when we make our eventual landing on Mars! I'm also more than a little disappointed that I won't be around to see how far we eventually go. As far as I'm concerned, this is only the beginning.