The most common argument against a publicly funded space program is that we can’t afford it, given the government’s many other priorities. The most common answer is that space makes an excellent public investment.
But if it is a good investment, why not leave space to private investors? Economist Mariana Mazzucato argues that publicly funded missions help turn economic uncertainty into calculable risk. By her definition, calculating the return on public space expenditures becomes impossible.
On the other hand, if you look at the American economy before, during, and after Apollo, you can see a correlation between economic growth and a robust aerospace program. During the Fifties, the American gross domestic product grew by 26% (from $2.27 trillion to $3.06 trillion in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.) During the Sixties—the decade of Apollo—the GDP grew by 35% ($3.08 trillion to $4.72 trillion). During the 1970s, the GDP grew by 28% ($4.71 trillion to $6.5 trillion).
In other words, the American economy grew one-third faster during the Apollo decade than during the decades before and after. Of course, no economist would say that the space program caused this growth. Still, the “knowledge ore” of science and technology generated by the Apollo program and NASA aerospace R&D continues to provide spinoffs today.
Total cost of Apollo in current dollars: $109 billion, or 0.2% of the GDP, a slice equaling one five-hundredth. Were the economic benefits worth that cost? You decide.
Besides making an economic case for a fully funded public space program, Space inspires young people to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
Annual cost of American education: $810 billion.
Approximate cost of STEM: $400 billion.
Additional cost of expanding STEM expenditures by one-half: $200 billion.
Additional cost of expanding NASA’s budget by one-half: $10 billion.
Then there is space’s value in enhancing America’s international standing. Assuming that the value of something is what you are willing to pay for it, we can look at relative costs.
Annual federal expenditures on international affairs (State Dept., Defense, Energy, Veterans Affairs): $800 billion.
Annual NASA budget: $18 billion.
Finally, we can look at how much of an impact the public space program has on the federal budget.
Size of 2015 federal budget: $3.7 trillion
NASA’s share of the federal budget: 0.4%
Impact to the federal budget of fully funding NASA: 0.3%
Still, some people say the money would be better spent on feeding and housing the poor, or on medical research, or on non-space research and technology. In fact, the federal government spends far more on these programs already.
Annual federal housing assistance: $190 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Annual budget of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): $75 billion (same source).
National Institutes of Health budget: $31 billion, according to the NIH.
Federal R&D expenditures: $145 billion, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Can we afford space? The numbers seem to show that we can; the impact of fully funding NASA to meet all of its congressionally mandated missions is minimal—almost undetectable in the larger scheme. But do these numbers prove the value of space? What is the total worth of building a vast new economy in the Gravity Well? Of providing future generations with the next inventions and discoveries? Of proving to the world that America can lead peacefully? Of ensuring the long-term survival of humanity?
These benefits, I believe, are priceless.