The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

CEV at the Moon
Speeding up development of the CEV would be much easier if NASA had more money, but winning that additional funding is a major challenge given all the competing programs within NASA alone, let alone other agencies. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

The politics and ethics of spending money on space exploration

“We shouldn’t spend money on space exploration until we’ve solved our problems here on Earth”. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard or read the previous sentence or variations of it, I would have a very big pile of nickels. I just heard it again recently. It is the kind of reasoning that would have Christopher Columbus still waiting for the go ahead on his expeditions. Spending on space exploration frequently triggers strong emotions on both sides of the questions. In my mind it triggers the question, “What is the appropriate level of spending on NASA?”

When I was in grade school and inspired by the Apollo program, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; I assumed that by the turn of the millennium space travel would be far more advanced than it currently is. Space travel isn’t the only technology that didn’t meet expectations. As Avery Brooks asked in an IBM commercial back at the turn of the millennium, “Where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars.” Twenty-five years ago many people assumed we would have solved the problem of generating power using nuclear fusion by now.

Predictions of the level of technology advancement in specific fields are notoriously inaccurate for a number of reasons. Unexpected problems, bad decisions, and insufficient funding are probably three of the biggest reasons when technology doesn’t advance as we expect. It is apparent that many people are apparently not satisfied with the progress that has been made in space exploration. I have to admit that I am one of them.

Potential cuts of NASA programs could be avoided if NASA would get an extra appropriation to ease and speed up the transition to the CEV. This begs the question again, “What is the appropriate level of spending on NASA?”

Since the launch of Discovery in the return to flight, several major newspapers around the country have run op-ed pieces and editorials about what should happen with the space shuttle and its replacement. Some people are suggesting that the shuttle program should end right now with the money being diverted to accelerate the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Some are even suggesting that we abandon the ISS and hand it over to our international partners.

NASA is currently picking programs to trim or eliminate so there is money to pursue development of the CEV. This could be avoided if NASA would get an extra appropriation to ease and speed up the transition to the CEV. This begs the question again, “What is the appropriate level of spending on NASA?”

Several years ago I learned an interesting lesson at a sales training class put on by AT&T, first in Kansas City and later in Houston. The instructor asked us to explain what type of competition we were facing for the largest deal we were trying to close. I told him that since nobody else was trying to sell the type of software we had developed to the prospect that we did not have a competitor for the sale. He said I was making a major mistake if I was thinking that. He said that if we did not have a direct competitor offering a similar product, our biggest competitor was other uses for their funds.

Proponents of every agency think that the agency they are interested in is underfunded. The Park Service could use more money for maintaining parks and facilities. The EPA could use more money to clean up toxic waste sites. The Energy Department could use more money for research into new energy sources like fusion and fuel cells. People either afflicted by or with friends or relatives suffering from diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or HIV/AIDS are more than likely advocating for more research money for the NIH.

The recent highway bill included $231 million dollars for a bridge in Alaska to an island with fifty residents. In a time when that kind of money is apparently being spent for the convenience of so few people, advocates of other programs have to wonder why they can’t get more money. I do not know the details of why this amount of money for this bridge is deemed justifiable by those who included it in the bill. I did not do any research on the issue. I have learned that a sensational headline and a paragraph or two in an article may not tell the whole story. But then again it may tell the whole story.

If the shuttle program and the ISS were quickly abandoned as some people are advocating, it would lead to layoffs and economic disruptions in a number of congressional districts. It would also lead to a loss of skilled workers that would be needed when shuttle-derived vehicles start flying. Regardless of the merits of keeping the shuttle going based on technical and safety issues, employment and loss of a skill base are legitimate factors to consider just as it is in the latest round of military base closings.

Just what does the space program give us that makes it worth the money? Many people are taught the technical spinoffs that help fuel innovation and spur the economy.

Opinions on just how much the federal government should spend in a year and on what is subjective to every person looking at the issue. Affordability from an economic standpoint is also very hard to judge when macroeconomics is still partially an art and only in part a well-defined science. Economists still cannot accurately measure or agree on the effects of the emotional and chaotic parts of human behavior as they relate to the economy. There is no clear-cut formula as to the effect of a rallying speech by a president on the demand curve on consumer spending. Nor is there an exact quantifiable effect on consumer confidence and national pride when there is a technological success like the Apollo Moon missions. National pride is not a negligible factor on where we’re going or what we think we can accomplish. The US victory in hockey in the 1980 Olympics really did help start lifting us out of the economic and emotional malaise the country had in the late 1970s. I recommend the movie Miracle for those who have forgotten or are too young to remember.

Just what does the space program give us that makes it worth the money? Many people are taught the technical spinoffs that help fuel innovation and spur the economy. A friend of mine asked, “Wouldn’t these breakthroughs have happened eventually without government spending on space?” “Maybe,” was my answer, “But it might be twenty years later, or by other countries with the profits flowing to them instead of us.” The space program does inspire young people to dream and become scientists and engineers. The space program helps us understand the universe and our place in it. I don’t know how you put a dollar value on that.

I would like to see NASA get a significant extra boost in spending to get past the transition from flying the shuttle to the CEV. I doubt that anything of great significance will happen in this area. Given that realization, Michael Griffin and his staff have to make hard decisions as to what will be the most effective way to spend the amount allotted. The President and Congress have to use their judgment as to how money gets allocated to each agency with spending guidelines and missions. Like any compromise and negotiated deals, there will always be people unhappy with the outcome. Proponents and agencies need to always fight for more because if they don’t, they will get less because there is always an alternative use for the money they get.

When the founding fathers of our country wrote the Constitution, they envisioned people of all occupations getting elected and serving in Congress. They wanted this so that they could bring a wealth of experience from these areas into the decisionmaking process and make better decisions for the country. Politicians love to speak about the strength diversity brings to our country. Sadly the diversity of occupations and experiences that Congress has seems to be diminishing. We typically elect lawyers to Congress. They tend to win over people with other backgrounds because they are trained to present and win arguments. This does not necessarily mean that they understand the arguments the way somebody who has worked in other occupations would about their occupation. Winning an election has less to do with understanding issues and presenting ideas than it is about understanding how to sell to the public. The issues our leaders have to address are increasingly diverse and complicated. By training and experience they are getting less diverse then the general population. I would like to see more economists, scientists, engineers, business leaders, philosophers, artists, and others elected that have a true understanding of the issues that they are making decisions on.

Proponents of space exploration need to continuously improve the ability to communicate their ideas and explain why we need NASA to have a clear mission and a sufficient budget to carry it out. We need to be able to explain the benefits in ways that people who do not regularly follow what the space program is doing will understand. We need to be able to explain to lawmakers what the benefits are not only to specific congressional districts but also to the country and the human race as a whole. We also need to be able to sell it without overselling individual points and losing credibility.

Proponents of space exploration need to continuously improve the ability to communicate their ideas and explain why we need NASA to have a clear mission and a sufficient budget to carry it out.

The Planetary Society recently published on their website a piece by Dr. Louis Friedman complaining about NASA deleting more than two billion dollars from Mars mission planning, including a sample return mission and the Mars Telecommunication Orbiter. He is worried that it will slow or halt work towards an eventual human mission to Mars so NASA can get past its current hurdle of finishing the ISS, retiring the shuttle, and developing the CEV. This is a prime example of different uses competing for the same money within the same agency, in part as a result of competition between government agencies for a share of the pie. While some sacrifices are inevitable and necessary, I agree with Dr. Friedman’s point about losing sight of our goals.

In an era of job outsourcing to India and large trade deficits with China, the presence of ever more capable space agencies in these countries has done a great deal to help maintain the growth of funding for, and a drive to give a mission to, NASA. Even if some of the claims of goals by these agencies stretch beyond credibility, it helps maintain public support. Americans are a competitive group and don’t want anyone else to set foot on Mars before we do. Using that fire is one of the best motivations to keep Congress and the next several administrations on our side.

Can we ethically spend money on a growing space program when it could be spent on education, or research on a potentially curable disease? Allocation of resources between countries, between groups of people, within governments, and within agencies in capitalistic societies seems to mimic Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is messy and chaotic, but over time it seems to work. There are winners and losers, successes and failures, but over time we as a species steadily move forward. It reminds me of Winston Churchill’s comments on democracy: “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

With the story last year that the asteroid Apophis (formerly known as 2004 MN4) had a one in thirty seven chance of hitting the Earth in 2029, spending money looking for near Earth asteroids was given a significant increase in credibility. The fact that it still has a one in eight thousand chance of hitting in 2036 keeps that credibility alive (see “Sounding an alarm, cautiously”, The Space Review, May 31, 2005). A manned or unmanned mission to Apophis, plus detailed Earth-based observations of its close pass in 2029, could not only generate significant public interest, but also provide us with more of the information needed to defend the Earth if a large object on an impact course is discovered in the next half-century or so. If an object is found, the moral equation of spending the money on space exploration versus expanding education spending or medical research is easy. If not, it is still justifiable in the fact that we need to know as much about all the factors in our universe as we can. We do not know ahead of time where the great discoveries or threats will come from. That is why we who are interested in space exploration need to push our agenda just as other people push theirs.