The Economic Value of Continued US Space Exploration
By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
Despite the enormous contributions that human space exploration has made in its short 60-year history, some critics still question the utility of and investment in space development. The average person is often surprised to learn that NASA operates on less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget.
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In July, the U.S. House of Representatives proposed to keep NASA funding flat next year, at $22.629 billion. That’s a “significant departure from the White House’s 2021 federal budget request, which allocated $25.246 billion to the space agency for the coming fiscal year,” Space.com observed.
This small piece of the proverbial pie pays for all of NASA’s activities, including its research centers, its launch vehicles and pads, its satellites, telescopes, deep space probes, and its Rovers operating on Mars, and other costs.
Speaking of the choice between continuing the space exploration agenda and abandoning it to address more immediate needs on Earth, the late Dr. Carl Sagan famously said: “Should we solve those problems first? Or are they a reason for going?”
Space Exploration Has Returned Enormous Economic Benefits to Humanity
Despite its costs, space exploration has returned enormous economic benefits to humanity. One key benefit is the plethora of jobs and industries created by the need for space equipment, launch vehicles, satellites, space suits, space stations, Rovers, space telescopes, and other support functions.
Since the dawn of the space age, the need for space industry professionals and companies has risen exponentially. People often take for granted all of the moving parts — and the hands maneuvering them — that are needed to operate a burgeoning space industry. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, SpaceX, and others have been built on federal contracts for the construction of spacecraft and the launch of specialized payloads into orbit from the federal government and private sector businesses.
Spacecraft design is no easy task. Engineers and physicists are needed for work in aerodynamics, pressure dynamics, thermal dynamics, rocket propulsion systems, rocket telemetry, orbital mechanics, materials testing, electronics, navigation, and other specialties. Then, of course, there are also the hands needed to manufacture the vehicles after the professionals have completed the design stages.
Some 60 years after the first space launches, we are still developing new technologies, such as SpaceX’s widely heralded return of a Falcon 9 booster rocket capable of launching payloads into orbit and then returning safely to Earth. “SpaceX, for the next time at any time, has efficiently recovered a Falcon 9 booster following 5 orbital-class launches and landings and could be just a week or so absent from its upcoming report-breaking rocket reuse,” news medium Haveeru pointed out.
But now, just a few years after initial success, SpaceX is landing its Falcon 9 first-stage boosters with respectable regularity. In March SpaceX completed its 50th booster recovery in five years, following a routine International Space Station resupply mission.
An Array of Industries Go into Supporting Space Exploration Efforts
Aside from the launch vehicles and spacecraft themselves, an array of other industries go into supporting space exploration efforts. Launch facilities need to be carefully engineered and built to accommodate various-size rockets for different applications. Ground stations need to be constructed around the world for tracking and communicating with spacecraft.
Rocket fuel, both liquid (usually liquid hydrogen or methane for combustion and liquid oxygen as an oxidizer) and solid (such as was used on the Space Shuttle vehicles and is still used on the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rockets) need a supply source. For manned missions, life support systems must be developed, including carefully constructed spacesuits for EVAs.
Thousands of people — Americans and otherwise — have found secure jobs in space industries. Many of the companies they work for have . For example, The Space Foundation estimated that in 2018 global space activity generated more than $400 billion in revenues.
Another significant contribution to the global economy has come in the form of spin-offs from space exploration research and development. Occasionally, we learn, say, from the inside of a Snapple bottle cap that our favorite appliance or electronic device had its origins at NASA. However, few truly appreciate the multitude of ways in which space research has reshaped today’s product markets and the lifestyles that millions of people of different nations enjoy.
- Digital image sensors in cameras and phones
- Winglets on the end of airplane wings for aerodynamics
- Development and improvement of GPS navigation systems
- Shelf-stable Omega-3 that is now used in more than 90% of baby formulas
- Memory-foam mattresses and pillows
- Aerodynamic innovations for the trucking industry, which have saved an estimated 7,000 gallons of fuel per vehicle per year
- Shock absorbers in buildings and bridges to cushion earthquake vibrations
- ”Invisible” dental braces derived from a kind of translucent ceramic developed for NASA
- Artificial hearts surgically implanted to help people with chronic heart failure
- Quality control for food safety that has now become the commercial industry standard
These products and innovations have either created new industries or expanded existing ones, and each has brought with it a wave of spending and investment that has strengthened the economies of the United States and other nations.
Space Exploration Has Paid for Itself Many Times Over in Economic and Social Betterment
Space exploration is not a cheap endeavor, but it has paid for itself many times over in the economic and social betterment contributions it has made around the world. The rewards have more than justified the costs, and there is no reason to believe that this trend will not continue.
With this in mind, it is important that, whenever we consider the value of space exploration today, we also consider the long game and the potential benefits to be enjoyed from this exploration tomorrow. If an investment opportunity promised you a 700-4,000 percent return, you’d be foolish not to take it. So remember this the next time we’re faced with a choice whether or not to fund our space programs.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.