More Than Space

Most economists will tell you that a fully funded space program is eminently worth the price. But that misses even more important benefits. The technology required to send people and robots into space creates a huge amount of knowledge that can be used for other things. I call this expanse of knowledge—technology that can be extracted and used by private industry—“knowledge ore.” In terms of future wealth it’s the equivalent of gold or oil, only with information.

But the rebound does not stop there. NASA stimulated the creation of modern communications networks and weather prediction by proving that satellites were capable of these tasks. The satellite industry generates more than $300 billion in revenue, an amount that continues to grow 5% to 15% a year. Satellite-based weather tracking has an annual economic value of $11 billion. Of course, these industries stand on their own today. NASA continues to build and manage the satellites used by the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather; but surely some private entity might be willing to bear the burden if Congress decides that’s no longer the government’s job.

Without NASA, though, what will catalyze the next breakthroughs—the next GPS?

Still, I do not pretend that economics will excite every reader into lusting after a robust space program. So let us take a different tack.


We’re All Going to Die

Researchers from biologists to astrophysicists use the best computer models to predict the eventual extinction of the human race. Many of these models indicate that our species may survive for another century or two—a thousand years, possibly. Beyond that, however, the outlook seems grim. Name your poison:

  1. Climate change dries up much of the planet, ruins our food crops, makes the oceans rise, and triggers a refugee crisis and global wars.
  2. Nuclear war or terrorism causes a breakdown of civilization and mass starvation.
  3. An epidemic decimates the population too fast for a cure.
  4. An asteroid or comet smashes into the planet, causing a cataclysm of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, and a pall of ash that destroys almost all crops.
  5. Cosmic rays from a quasar silently kill off all living things on Earth.

Most of us may have forgotten a real-live doomsday scenario that I left off the list: the hole in the ozone layer. During the 1970s, scientists speculated that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, posed a risk to Earth’s atmospheric sunscreen, a layer of oxygen molecules that shield the planet from deadly ultraviolet rays. Research confirmed that a hole in the layer had opened up over Antarctica. NASA sent up satellites during the mid-Eighties to measure the extent of the problem. From the vantage point of space, they proved that the hole not only existed, it was expanding rapidly. Eventually, the ozone would disappear altogether. The research was so conclusive that, in 1987, every member of the United Nations signed a protocol to phase out the use of CFCs in aerosol sprays and refrigeration. Scientists now predict that the ozone layer will fully recover by 2070. In short, we are not going to die from hairspray.

But what about the problems that remain? NASA satellites look back at Earth more completely than any other nation’s satellites, public or private. We happen to be very good at taking selfies of our own planet. These satellites show the amazingly complex relationships among the atmosphere, the oceans and land ecosystems—all the systems we have to know to correct those factors that tend to make our planet inhabitable to humans.


Saving the World Is Educational

Another positive point arises from the threat of human extinction. As a father, and as someone who speaks frequently with young people, I have noticed that smart, ambitious youth tend to fall into two basic categories: those who want to change the world, and those who want to save it. Either ambition can lead to great things, or blow everything up. To channel the ambitions of our best and brightest youth, I believe we need more than movies about space. We need a tangible, crucial mission that saves humanity.

At any rate, we definitely need more people to go into STEM—education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. America depends on its technological leadership for security and a healthy economy. Yet we are in danger of losing that very technological leadership. Our university system, as challenged as it is politically and economically these days, continues to be seen as a model by the rest of the world; more than half of students pursuing Ph.D.’s in science and tech in this country are foreign nationals who return to their home countries. Those places used to be occupied mostly by Americans. Inspired by the space program, the number of American math and science Ph.D.’s more than tripled during the Sixties. After the end of Apollo, that number began to decline, and it continues to fall. America spends more than $1 trillion a year on education, but it has trouble recruiting its own young citizens into STEM. Meanwhile, other nations are doing all they can to invest in STEM education, with the hope of leading the world. This isn’t a bad thing. When we colonize space, we won’t do it alone. But if we don’t take the lead, who do we want to lead us?

To regain our technological leadership, to continue to explore and discover and invent, to lead the world in saving humanity, and in the meantime to revitalize the economy—we need a government effort as well as a private one.

In other words, we need a bold national space program and more intelligent funding of NASA. Private industry is building most of the equipment that goes into space, but the leading-edge research and risk-taking have to be spread over our entire society. No single company in its right mind would subject a relatively few stockholders to this risk.

The problem is, NASA can’t sustain itself on its current budget. It currently gets $18 billion a year from Congress, an amount that has been shrinking in real dollars for the past two and a half decades. While $18 billion constitutes an impressive amount of money, our spending on Hollywood shows where our priorities currently lie. The 2015 space movie, The Martian—the one in which Matt Damon plays an astronaut-botanist—took in more box office receipts on its opening weekend than NASA’s daily budget. Our nation has become better at playing pretend than actually boldly going.

To boost that budget to the $30 billion necessary for colonizing Mars and meeting NASA’s other, ambitious goals, would constitute an increase of about one third of one percent of the federal budget. To get that money will require a whole different conversation among our political candidates and thought leaders, as well as you and me. We will need to recognize what space does for us as a nation—technologically, educationally, globally, economically. Spiritually. Space, ultimately, is about faith—faith that our curiosity and restlessness, our ability to take some risks, will lead to treasures we cannot imagine.

And yet we see increasing evidence of a loss of faith. We limit ourselves to our comforts and to absolute safety. Our political leaders tell us only how dangerous the world is. We talk about protection. We turn inward, fear the unknown, circle the wagons, and dread the future. Like China in centuries past, we talk about building walls.

To restore our faith in ourselves and our future, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our forebears, the first Americans who came to the land bridge that stretched through hostile waters toward an unknown land. I imagine they must have held long debates about the risks and rewards of pushing forward. Only those brave souls who took the risks eventually saw the rewards.

Are you, personally, going to be the one who says, “Turn back?”


The Continuing Mission

America’s future continued with the “discovery” of the continent by Europeans. They saw America as a treasure of exploration—and an escape from war, repression and hunger. Our future moved forward with Lewis & Clark, and the settlement of the frontiers from coast to coast; with our exploration of the deep seas; and with the systematic effort to put several Americans on the Moon.

We think we know the story about the Moon landing. If we think about it at all anymore, we remember—what?—Neil Armstrong taking one long downward step onto the dusty lunar soil. We remember his words about a “giant leap for mankind.” We remember the American flag, the footprints, and maybe Alan Shepard swinging a 7-iron, driving the ball forever in the weak gravity. We remember, if we remember at all, that in that moment America reached its apogee in space. After that, it was all downhill: the other landings, the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, the robots sent to distant planets. Impressive feats, all of them, but not compared to landing on the Moon. That’s the story we know; one that ends too abruptly.