10 July 2011

The cost of space exploration

As I watched the final shuttle launch Friday morning, I heard a lot of commentary re the need to scale back space exploration because of the costs involved and the economic situation this country is in. 

I didn't hear any of the commentators citing Neil deGrasse Tyson.


  1. Of course they won't cite him. Who needs truth if it stands in the way of your opinion?
    But then, how often does anyone mention the things we use today that were developed in connection with the space program?
    Ever use anything made of mylar?
    Have a cell phone? GPS? Cordless power tools? Computer? Do you ever fly in an airliner?
    Eat vacuum packed food?
    I'd rather spend my tax dollars on NASA than no-bid, cost-plus contracts for mercenaries in Iraq.

  2. I'll bet they somehow forgot to mention all the people about to be laid off because of NASA cutbacks.

    And NASA won't be buying any more rocket fuel, solid rocket boosters, heat absorbing tiles or ground support supplies. Those things did not grow on the palm trees of Cape Canaveral.

  3. @Fester,

    Re people being laid off as an undesirable consequence of cauterizing NASA, please see the Parable of the Broken Window:


    Briefly: The money that will no longer go to the newly unemployed has not been removed from the economy, but will still be spent elsewhere.

    Also: Sure, there have been benefits from the space program. But what other benefits have we not had due to the expense of the program? This is the concept of "opportunity cost" from econ 101:


  4. NASA, ESA, etc. are worth far more than the numbers in their budgets. Apart from the major contributions they make to science and engineering, they also present a dynamic and pioneering image of science to the world and to future generations. In an age where many of us are finally moving beyond superstitious religious beliefs about the universe, it is vital that we continue manned exploration of space.

  5. Wayne
    And what benefits have we forgone due to the massive amounts of waste in the current three wars?
    You could argue that the attacks on 9/11 were beneficial to America.
    After all they stimulated the rubble removal and construction industries in lower Manhattan; Provided billions of dollars (on credit--no tax increases paid for it) to "contractors" such as Blackwater to privatize former military tasks(at a guaranteed profit for the contractors); and stimulated the manufacturers of HumVees, tanks, heliopters, assault rifles and ammunition. The attacks also created more employment opportunities in the form of a whole new layer of government and increased security at airports. Of course all of this was paid for with nothing. No taxes were increased, the US just added to its credit card.

    The seven tenths of one penny per dollar in taxes that NASA received is, in fact, a drop in the bucket when it comes to money that could have been spent elsewhere.

  6. @Fester,

    I could make such an argument, but it would be fallacious. The cost and (arguable) benefit of war doesn't have anything to do with whether or not the space shuttle program was money well spent.

    Let me put it this way: In order to justify spending on my favorite program, is it merely necessary to spend a great deal more on a program I disagree with, so that I can say "Well, it's a better use of my money than on that?"

  7. Wayne
    That was precisely what I got from your first post.
    Especially the Opportunity Cost article you cited.
    We have lost many more opportunities to benefit from available funding by more monumental wastes of money than the Space Program.
    I believe the fallacy lies in the opportunities lost argument. What exact benefits were lost, and by whom, in the funding NASA?
    How much better off would we have been if NASA had never been? How would the country and society been better off without it?
    Those are questions which cannot be answered because we cannot go back in time and cancel what has been done. To try and argue what might have been is a waste of time.
    BTW, thank you for your thought provoking comments.

  8. @Fester, You're right that the lost opportunities cannot be known, but the losers can easily be identified: They are the individual taxpayers who funded the program.

  9. The content of this post is not new to me. NASA is the most wildly effective scientific research program the US Government (you might argue, has ever created-- and is only being slashed because the line of scientific progress is not always completely sensical, and can't be followed by the bean-counters as it were.

    What I learned from this post is: Neil Degrasse Tyson has a twitter account? And I'm not on it? WTF

  10. Kind of feel sorry for Wayne.

    At one half of one cent per dollar, I am perfectly satisfied with sending NASA $25 a year.

  11. I agree that NASA's scientific mission should continue, and I have no problem maintaining or even slightly increasing the budget.

    I think the scientific case for human spaceflight is extremely limited. Here in Scientific American Lawrence M. Krauss argues persuasively that virtually every valuable scientific experiment can be done more cost effectively without a human crew.

  12. @Fester, so can we voluntarily fund NASA, and you can donate your $25 ...as well as $25 for every person who doesn't want to support it? Somehow I feel that would lead to a large dent in your wallet....so we're back to the old 'funding by force' which is the only way governments can work.

    I loved the shuttle program as a kid, am a former aerospace engineer, and so I'm both sad and happy to see it go. Companies like SpaceX are doing in a fraction of the time and cost what the government sector can do. May the best free market solution win. :^>


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