Time for another rant. Yesterday, NASA announced that it was having to delay its first test mission for the planned return to the moon. On social media and news comment threads, the comments were mostly negative, with many calling for NASA to be defunded as a “waste of taxpayer money.” I particular liked the comments that focused how projects like this were “what you get when you elect democrats” and “we need Trump back to kill” wasteful programs. (Editor’s note: these are approximate quotes — the actual ones were, shall we say, more colorful in describing the current administration and its politics). In case, like those posters, you have forgotten, the pledge to return to the moon was a centerpiece of Trump’s Space Force initiative.
These sentiments are hardly new or merely a product of the current “everything is about politics” divide in the nation. Many people want to completely privatize the space industry, claiming that NASA’s $23.3 billion annual budget is an example of unnecessary government spending that has no real benefit for the taxpayer. They maintain that private industry can “do a better job” of launching satellites and universities should pay for “luxury” projects like space telescopes.
NASA’s budget is 0.6% of the federal budget, about $70 per citizen. Admittedly, that’s not chump change. Those funds could be used to provide a tax rebate of several hundred dollars to families (more if limited to middle and lower incomes) or fund 11 days of the military budget. But what would we lose if we privatized NASA’s mission?
Well, first, the cost of just about everything would go up, because every consumer product either directly or indirectly benefits from space-based technology. Even with nascent private space launch companies trying to pick up the slack, their costs would skyrocket (pun intended), and these costs would eventually be passed along to the consumer. Although NASA is an independent agency, it works closely with the Commerce Department and NOAA to make certain that we have state-of-the-art weather forecasting technology. The Department of Agricultural depends on NASA data for crop forecasts. The Department of the Interior depends on NASA data to track forest and aquiculture resources. All of these benefits would have to be supplied by private industry going forward at profitable rates for the suppliers.
And then there is the military. Yes, the various service branches all have their own suborbital missile technology and perhaps the capability of launching low orbit satellites (along with the NSA and CIA), but the expertise for these missions comes primarily from NASA. So we would still need to have our own space program (unless we are willing to trust our military and intelligence resources to for-profit, likely multinational corporations).
However, all of these contributions are dwarfed by one small office within the NASA administration. NASA has a “technology transfer program” which provides industry and individuals with innovative products developed by its engineers and scientists at no cost or for very low cost licenses (a portion of the license fee goes to the employee(s) who developed the product as a bonus). While no one keeps track of the actual benefit of this program, even conservative estimates show that the benefit to the American economy far exceeds the cost of NASA’s budget. Since the program was begun in the late 70s (before that, technology was made available, but with greater restrictions because of the Cold War), it’s impact has contributed trillions of dollars the the US’s GDP.
Finally, there is the “WOW factor” of space exploration. Many of the technology innovations that have proved financial boons for the economy were developed from space exploration programs, but even discounting those benefits, the scientific data gathered from these missions has significant impact on the advancement of our understanding of the Universe. And, yes, pretty pictures of planets and nebulae and comets and gaseous clouds. I am not suggesting that these benefits alone would justify NASA’s continued funding, but they are definitively a very nice extra benefit.
End of Rant.