Q&BA: Why spend money on NASA?

By Phil Plait | February 13, 2012 3:53 pm

During last week’s Q&BA live video chat session on Google+, I got the question, "Why spend money on NASA when we need that money here on Earth?"

This is a common question, and very apropos given the terrible budget news we got about NASA earlier today. So I put my answer up on YouTube. We’ll be hearing this argument a lot in the upcoming budget battles, and hopefully this’ll help show why we need to spend money on NASA, even more than we are now.

I have a lot of blog posts dealing with this issue, since it comes up so often. You’ll find all them linked in this blog post: Debating Space. We need to be exploring space, and we need to be investing in our future. Science and exploration are our future.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Q & BA

Comments (21)

  1. BJN

    Your first argument is exactly the same as for any program, including “defense” spending. It doesn’t address why NASA spending is any more or less appropriate than any other spending. I’d offer the perspective that it’s morally better to get technology development and new science investing in space research and exploration than in research into more expensive ways to wage war.

    Investing in science makes sense in the “seed corn” sense, but we are talking about space science in particular. I’d answer that we live on a finite planet that we evolved upon and depend upon utterly. It’s not in the least bit hyperbolic to call Earth our “spaceship”. Space research absolutely helps us to understand this planet, perhaps well enough someday to avoid collapse of human civilization should we ever figure out how to make politics responsive to reason.

  2. Jose

    Even though I’m sympathetic to appeals for more science funding, I don’t think you’ve made a throughly convincing case for public investment in astronomy *right now.* The research investment that has the greatest potential to improve the lives of people alive *right now* is publicly funded biomedical research.

    I notice a tendency when making these appeals to focus on a nebulous “we” encompassing not only citizens or people alive currently but indefinite future generations or humanity as a whole. Let me suggest a more intimite ultimatum: without biomedical technologies that can be reasonably developed through concerted effort *you* will never see the future of space exploration because *you* will die after which *you* will never think or experience anything again. If “we” want to inherit the stars, or even our own solar system, “we” must do something about the fundamental limitations of our biology. It’s impossible even to think with the correct perspective on the sort of projects we could undertake within the limits of the very short human lifespan.

    We’re on the brink of a biotechnology revolution, and while I love astronomy (what prompts me to read this blog among other things) you can’t say the same for it. The marginal return in quality of life for investment in biotechnology and especially therapies that undo damage to and regenerate human tissues outstrips everything else by far. Every day that the maturity of this technology is delayed means that more than one million people will die in agony unnecessarily.

  3. Brian Too

    I come down pretty hard on the political right for not “getting it” when it comes to hard times. They understand the matter of budget cutbacks but are utterly tonedeaf when it comes to tax increases for the wealthy. If the vast majority of the country is going to feel some pain then the wealthy have to share that pain. To do otherwise is to abandon common cause with your fellow citizens.

    In this case I believe the reverse is true. NASA must sacrifice something and share the pain of the country. To suggest an overall budget increase for NASA creates hard feelings amongst the rest of the country and government. It does not matter how quantitiatively large or small NASA’s budget is. Unless their mandate was directly to lift the country out of recession, they slim down a bit. Unless lives will be lost or irretrievably destroyed, NASA gets less this year.

    The Defense Department at least tried to get in front of these cuts and make suggestions. Control their future to some extent. NASA needs (needed?) to do the same.

    Talk of overall budget increases can wait until economic times improve.

  4. I know I always say the same thing, but eliminate a lot of the redundencies and fraud in defense spending and the fraud and inefficiencies in entitlement spending and we could easily bouble NASA’s budget and have plenty to spare for other things with no adverse effect on services or readiness.

  5. Grand Lunar

    I agree with you partly, Brian Too, mainly when it comes to the SLS, which unfortunately was what NASA was TOLD to make. Given that NASA is being given less to spend, while being asked to make a monster, expensive launch system that has high costs associated with it is just setting it up for failure.

    However, we must also remember that NASA already has felt pain, even during good times.
    So many good missions were axed, some of which could’ve really gotten us great returns (like JIMO).

    Also consider how in the midst of the economic downturn, the govt gave hundreds of billions in bailouts.
    Think about that; money many times greater than what NASA would ever hope to see was just handed out. And for what good?

    It goes to show that’s it’s not so much a matter that we’re in a downturn, but rather what it is we’re really willing to spend on.
    NASA isn’t asking for much at all in terms of funding. Bump the current $17 and some odd billion budget to an even $18 billion, and let’s call it good. It’s still a fraction of 1% of federal spending.

    To paraphrase Phil, you don’t go after 100kb files to clear up a hard drive when you’ve got 100mb files laying around.

  6. Chris

    Whoa, spending on science creates jobs? Dude, you’re blowing my mind. Next you’ll tell me tax breaks for millionaires who keep their money in the Cayman Islands doesn’t help the economy.

  7. tudza

    Well, far better answers than “We got this or that thing from the space program.” to which I always ask “Well, why don’t you could spend money on researching technologies without the added cost of shooting the product into space.”

    I would add that the study of other planets adds to our knowledge of Earth’s atmosphere and geology. There are high energy events in space that can add to our knowledge from colliders and other studies here.

    Tobacco? Hey, I enjoy smoking my pipe.

  8. Jon

    Its simple. Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Mankind must colonize at least 1 other planet or face extinction if a cataclysm were to occur. The amount of money DC wastes on greed and corruption has now eclipsed the desire to preserve our race. If NASA could somehow capture either a) the amount of hot air that politicians blow, or b) convert lies into power, we would have light speed by now.

  9. My answer is no!!! Space rocks!!!!!!!! THIS WOULD MEAN THE END OF HUBBLE!!!!! THE END OF CASSINI!!!!!! THE AND OF THE MARS ROVERS AND CURIOSITY!!!!!!!!!! THE END OF CUBE-SAT AND THE ISS!!!!!!!!!!!!!! C’MON PEOPLE!!!!!!!!! FIGHT FOR NASA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    WE NEED TO BE THE HUMANS ON THE MOON & MARS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. And Chris,
    Tax breaks for millionaires who keep their money in the Cayman Islands doesn’t help the economy. Cutting NASA is stupid. Why can’t we cut war? We spend billions on war every day!

  11. Or make millionaires pay more taxes for their country

  12. Ray Moscow

    Of course, NASA is located on Earth. We’re actually spending the money down here, even when we occasionally launch something into space. [OK, I watching the video and see that Phil has already explained this.]

    The main question is ‘why do basic science?’ It comes down to the relative importance of learning about our universe versus remaining ignorant of it.

    And in the long run, the gains in technology benefit us in countless ways anyway.

  13. Elmar_M

    3 billion for the god damn SLS and some honorably senators are still not happy. Commercial space only gets 830 million but will deliver multiple launchers and spacecraft in return. It is all just so the pork keeps rolling to certain districts, right Mr Shelby, Mrs Hutchinson and co?
    Conservatives… and then they turn arround and complain about wasteful government spending in the same breath… bah!

  14. Peter Davey

    With regard to “Tudza” I find it difficult to believe that we will get the other planets, let along the rest of the Universe, without spending on a space programme.

  15. John EB Good

    I believe Ex-shuttle Flight Director, Wayne Hale, provided the best answer to this question based on facts taken out of centuries of Human History.

    The short story is: Not exploring new frontiers made most Earthly Empires since the beginings of written History crumble into some colony to a small country that dared to explore. That’s how Empires are built; on the ruins left by a previous super-power lacking the confidence to maintain its edge!

    But the long story is quite more revealing:


    For anyone who knows how to read and have the slightest sense of how History repeats itself, it should be a no brainer.

  16. frankenstein monster

    I am disappointed with your answer, Phill.
    Your ‘short answer’ is just a straightforward example of the broken window fallacy.

    Your long answer, and by extension, Johns EB Good’s justification is much better. However neither his answer is going to persuade anyone, because those willing to accept such arguments, have not the slightest doubt about the necessity of investing into space exploration.
    And the rest is either incapable of long term thinking at all, or laboring under a world view in which space exploration has no place, or is even openly hostile to it.

  17. don gisselbeck

    The big problem is that spending on science, especially space, doesn’t significantly enhance the wealth and power of the predator class. Doing that is the only thing we seem to care about any more.

  18. Daniel S.

    All of the people in the world who believe that space travel is the future of mankind and that it is beneficial, maybe even necessary, to our survival should band together and form a group independent of any government agency. Membership could b,e say $20 a month, or equivalent in whatever country you happen to be from. We could then fund, free of politics, any program we see fit. Millions would join.

  19. Jon

    (not the #8 Jon)

    One reason why private industry can do space flight a little cheaper is because they can build their facilities where it actually makes sense to do so, instead of having to make some essential part in Backwoodsville, Flyoverstate because the Representative from there insisted on some pork in his barrel before voting for the program.


  20. Number 6

    Thanks, Phil, for the excellent answers on this issue — Money is spent here on earth to create jobs and help bolster the economy, but even more important, you say, it’s spent now to create a better future for all of us and all that will come after us.

    I remember a PBS show many years ago called Connections w/ James Burke (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connections_(TV_series) )….That series showed how the invention of this led to the invention of that which led to the invention of….Each time a new technological leap was accomplished on the backs of existing technology.

    Therefore, maybe NASA’s discoveries in space and its creation of new uses of technology in space could lead to technological breakthroughs on Earth?….Maybe the salvation of our planet is waiting to be discovered elsewhere?

  21. Steve

    Here’s another reason to keep NASA funded and I’m surprised you didn’t mention it. Its Aeronautics, the first ‘A’ in NASA. NASA continues to research aeronautics, providing safer and more efficient flying to everyone on this planet. If you fly on an airplane, NASA research is incorporated in some manner.


    As for the space side of things, friends and aquaintances will ask why I purchased a telescope. I’ll set it up and let them take a look at Jupiter, Saturn or possibly a nebula. Twenty minutes later they’re still staring in awe at the same field of view. How can anyone not want to see and understand more of the universe?


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