Is Investment into Space Technologies a Waste of Money?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or NASA) was founded in 1958 due to a huge rise in demand over space and scientific conquest. Many other alternatives were considered before president Eisenhower decided to establish a federal space department, but NASA was the agency that seemed most suited to replace the existing NACA. Its initial creation was more of a political backlash to the 1957 Soviet 'Sputnik 1' mission and was seen as an ideological battle between superpowers during the cold war.


Being a federal agency, NASA is essentially funded by US taxpayers and therefore calls into question the issue of whether the scientific results justify the dollars spent on scientific discovery by NASA. The Chinese, European and Japanese space agencies (Chinese Space Programme, the ESA and JAXA) were formed later, amidst the fall of the Soviet iron curtain. All three, among others, have a duty to the public to provide tangible feedback from the money invested by the citizens of the particpating countries. Just exactly what these agencies specifically set out to do has been disputed over many times. The NASA website states the current four goals are, in descending order of importance:

(1) Conduct research, particularly environmental research, on Earth, the sun, and Venus, the most Earth-like planet.
(2) Locate asteroids and comets that might strike Earth, and devise a practical means of deflecting them.
(3) Increase humanity's store of knowledge by studying the distant universe.
(4) Figure out a way to replace today's chemical rockets with a much cheaper way to reach Earth orbit.

To tackle number (1), NASA has implemented a number of missions, yet the most interesting recent development is that in may 2006, NASA changed its mission status to remove
the pursuit of further knowledge of Earth. It no longer focuses upon Earthly aspects, which is apparent in the large number of projects dropped by NASA that regard Earthly missions. Surely, in the eyes of American taxpayers, the Earth issues are easily the most tangible and the most visible consequences of NASA's actions. There is the argument that NASA have put forward, that NASA's primary objective is to pursue more scientific and space-orientated explorations, and environmental concerns are not NASA's problem (I've adapted it). This is evident in the cancelling of Hydros, a satellite that would have provided the first global data on soil moisture trends. Even if we say that NASA no longer concerns itself with parts of point (1), it still must investigate further with regard to the Sun and Venus.

Currently there are no Sun or Venus specific space programmes planned or in progress. This is not to state that there is no research being done on the subjects, just no major sun or venus-specific projects in place. Perhaps studying the Sun to a greater degree would provide Earthly information, such as global warming data, thus fulfilling the self imposed duty of environmental research. Also, by monitoring Venus, which is a prime example of the Greenhouse effect according to Michael Guidry (1.) et al. This may help us to understand potential issues with the greenhouse effect on Earth, again fulfilling the criteria set by NASA themselves.

Even by exploring otherworldly issues, NASA and the ESA are inadvertently advancing society on Earth. Just the announcement of a super-earth planet such as the April 2007 discovery of Gliese 581 c, the first real potentially habitable planet found by scientists, will provoke discussion amongst the public, as well as enhance thought and imagination on an individual level. Much like the discovery of a spherical Earth centuries ago; there is no real change in the lives of civilians, yet there is a deeper understanding of the world by its human inhabitants, which is perhaps what Gliese 581 c does.

Point (2) refers to more of a damage limitation affair. It is a protection matter, rather than one of scientific dispute. In this respect I do not believe taxpayers in the USA (and other countries to a lesser extent) can complain over NASA expenditure in this department. Considering that lack of protection from meteors and comets could potentially spell extinction of the human race, prevention of this should be the number one priority for any human on Earth. Geological studies apparently increasingly show that catastrophic asteroid and comet hits were not confined to ancient times. In 1908, a small asteroid smacked Siberia with a blast impact equivalent to the strongest nuclear bomb ever detonated by the US; recent evidence suggests an enormous object struck the Indian Ocean a mere 4,800 years ago, causing global tsunamis that may have engendered the flood referred to in the Bible. Yet NASA has no program to research ways of deflecting space objects.

NASA actually recently told the American congress that it could not spare $1 billion to catalogue the locations and movements of potentially dangerous asteroids. Considering this, NASA is failing to live up to its own ambitions. So, if NASA was fulfilling this goal, then perhaps there would be little doubt as to whether the projects undertaken by NASA were worthwhile to the taxpayers, as the very survival of Humans could depend upon NASA and the ESA's actions. Because the international space agencies are doing barely anything to track, monitor and create a contingency plan for dangerous asteroids, it can be said that the agencies are failing to provide adequate return on investment by the public.

These few issues aside, what can international space agencies provide for the Earth's citizens; and are they doing this? Increasing humanity's store of knowledge by studying the distant universe is the key area of success for the international space agencies. It is fascinating to consider how far humanity has come since the start of the 1900's. Around 1901, The Guzman Prize was created; the first person to establish interplanetary communication would be awarded 100,000 francs under one stipulation: Mars was excluded because Madame Guzman thought communicating with Mars would be too easy to deserve a prize. This is a humorous concept in today's age, yet we are still no closer to finding any extra-terrestrial life. The only likely worthwhile feedback for the vast majority of the public is data regarding seemingly simple ideas, like exploration into otherworldly life or the future colonisation of planets. NASA and the ESA have made a huge number of scientific breakthroughs in the last fifty years, putting man on the moon, 'visiting' all of the solar system's planets and sending four satellites beyond the sun. These are real achievements in the eyes of the public, but not necessarily in a scientific sense. There is little or no scientific value in putting humans upon the moon, yet it has certain connotations on Earth: man conquering the moon, an understanding of space and of course the cold war/space race issues. More scientifically significant, yet less media-friendly projects such as Wilkinson's Microwave Anistropy Probe investigate things such as the history of our universe, something quite important in a philosophical and scientific sense, will seem like somewhat a waste of money in the public sphere.

On the front of pleasing the taxpayers, I believe NASA and ESA have failed since the glory days of the Apollo missions. In terms of scientific discovery, regardless of public reception, I believe the international space agencies have succeeded. Perhaps the agencies have to accept that most of the public do not actually know what a worthwhile investment is or not, and understanding is developed in ways other than those with high face value. The public have to entrust the agencies to perform and spend accordingly and because most people do not have a detailed knowledge of astrophysics, they have to almost blindly trust their governmental agency to spend effectively. Greg Easterbrook argues this blind trust is the only way in which space agencies can perform effectively. (4.)

So, NASA, JAXA and ESA all possibly spend fairly efficiently on a scientific level and have achieved a great deal in advanced science. It is in the public sphere that only limited success has been met. There has not been a major media-friendly event for decades (other than 1984 and 2003 catastrophies and perhaps the International Space Station) and few simple, everyday discoveries that the public can understand and integrate into their lives and collective ideology have been made. In this respect, the international space agencies cannot continue to demand such massive amounts of taxpayers' money, as there is little tangible feedback for the public, and little pressing need for space exploration in many people's opinions.

NASA have also not always been value for money either. There are numerous examples of NASA over-spending, like the New Horizons project, which spiralled to $700million, despite its Atlas V launch vehicle costing only $200million(3.).

Another interesting issue is responsibility. NASA has an annual budget of almost $17billion (5.), $14billion more than the ESA, which has a contribution from 16 rich countries. How can one country dominate space exploration so much? Perhaps it is the responsibility of the world's superpower to explore and research the universe for not only the USA's own citizens, but for the people of the world it attempts to police and appease, as Beth Daley suggests (2.).Collaboration between agencies is a good sign of countries working together to further the pursuit of knowledge, and signifies that humanity's interest is at heart. Although $17billion is a lot of money, in context it pales in significance to other costs in the US budget. NASA accounts for 0.7% of the annual US budget and is equivalent to just one month's expenditure in the Iraq war. When this is considered, the cost appears far more palatable. Lots of NASA missions, such as Cassini are performed with a relatively tiny budget. (6.)

When considering that current space projects have the progression of humanity on Earth at the centre of them, with national pride, profit and politics playing an increasingly minimal role, the issue surrounding private space exploration arises. With the ongoing debate over public unrest at NASA expenditure, private contracts can be considered. Private companies would perhaps consider economic aspects to a greater degree, as commercial gain would play a more central role than current funding systems for the existing governmental agencies. Virgin galactic and private satellites have proved that the private sector can capitalise upon work done by international space agencies. I believe this is the single most important factor in determining the value of space agencies. The pioneering work done by space agencies not only furthers our understanding of life, the universe and everything (directly and indirectly) but allows the technology to be harnessed by anyone else, consequently changing the very way we live our lives, by giving people the power to. By doing the hard work, NASA and ESA give others the opportunity to further advance the given field of research, so that mankind can directly benefit. A good example of this would be the use of satellites for television signals by the private sector for the enjoyment of the public. This is an indirect positive outcome of public expenditure on space agencies. So, although it may seem a lot of investment on the surface, and results may not always be as clear or ground breaking as we would like, I believe that space agencies can provide the human race with so many things ranging from new pleasures to future survival, which would connote that expenditure should match the importance of the work done. I think that enough of the public's money is spent upon space exploration, and there is no call to complain, as these agencies could well be performing the most important work on the planet.

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