How Much Is Our Influence Worth?

Let’s see if we can attach a dollar value to the international benefits of the public space program. The amount spent each year on international affairs by the federal government totals about $800 billion a year. That includes the State Department (about $50 billion), Defense ($600 billion), Energy ($24 million), and Veterans Affairs $150 billion). What if a fraction of that $800 billion went to the space program to help build our international standing?

To help answer that question, we need to look at what improves our standing in the world. Most experts point to two factors: Force and influence. Force means military or financial power. Influence is the ability to build hope and opportunity globally, as well as to inspire awe and make individuals and nations want to join us. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that half of America’s standing owes to force, and half to influence.

Let’s further assume that America’s civil space program—its evidence of our technological abilities, the opportunities for education and employment, and the cooperative efforts led by America with other nations—accounts for a tenth of the total influence.

Eight hundred billion divided by two yields $400 billion. That’s America’s “influence” budget. A tenth of that—the space program’s share of America’s influence—amounts to $40 billion. If you accept my numbers (you might choose to weigh the factors differently), then you get a figure considerably larger than NASA’s actual budget of $18 billion. Ignore the benefits to the economy, which we explored in Chapter Five. Ignore space’s ability to stimulate the growth of STEM education and inspire students to study science, technology, engineering, and math. The international benefits of NASA alone constitute far more value than its current budget.

Admittedly, it’s impossible to calculate a dollar value to our standing among other nations. After all, how do we measure greatness? Instead, I let Congress do the numbers for us; and it has chosen to spend $800 billion annually on our ability to protect ourselves, command respect, and influence the world. Space clearly contributes to that influence. Calculate the numbers as you will, and you will find NASA to be a bargain.