Stephen Weinberg, a Nobel winning physicist, is reported to have stated that “the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value. Human beings don't serve any useful function in space.” Although he is a brilliant physicist, his statement, if accurately reported, is remarkably ignorant regarding the scientific contributions of human space travel. Over seven hundred pounds of rocks brought from the moon, among other bits of science that came from the manned missions to the lunar surface, doubtless contributed something to science. The Hubble Space Telescope has had some scientific value, I think most people would agree. But if it weren’t for people in space, there would be no Hubble Space Telescope. People carried it into orbit aboard a space shuttle and have repeatedly had to fly up to repair and refurbish it. The Hubble wouldn’t have been launched, and it would have broken down and burned up in the atmosphere years ago, if it weren’t for the manned space program.
So an obvious value of the space program over the last fifty years is the science that has been produced, both by human crewed vehicles and the many robotic space probes that have flown. But a question many others still have is this: has the space program benefited ordinary people who aren’t interested in science? Has all that money poured into the cosmos done any earthly good?
Certainly. There are many things that we use every day that wouldn’t exist apart from space (and I’m not talking about Tang and Velcro): communication satellites that transmit telephone, radio, and television signals instantly to any part of the world. Military reconnaissance satellites mean that our enemies can run but they can’t hide. Weather satellites allow us to see storms approaching, so that hurricanes don’t hit without warning. Other satellites allow the creation of maps of incredible accuracy, show us resources like oil, gas, and minerals, monitor arable land, pay attention to the ozone layer and any number of other environmental details. Global positioning satellites help guide aircraft, ships and truckers, as well as hikers and commuters. Satellite radio beams commercial free music and entertainment to our cars and homes. Satellite TV is ubiquitous and popular—and even if you have cable TV, your cable company depends on satellite transmissions to get all those channels to you. Then there are the spin-off technologies, ranging from modern electronics, computers to photo enhancement technology.
Then there are the intangibles that we have gotten from space: the wonder of seeing the earth from the moon; the impact those views have had on how people perceive of themselves in the universe. The desire for conservation and responsible use of the environment has been influenced by seeing the world as a tiny, fragile object in an otherwise very hostile universe. Then there’s the joy of exploration, scientific discoveries and data.
It is, of course, impossible to predict what the space program may still bring us in the future, since it is impossible to predict the future with any degree of accuracy. But given the benefits the first fifty years have given us, is it unrealistic to imagine that the future will also bring us tangible benefits from space as well?
Robert Heinlein wrote, “It’s not good for the human race to keep all its eggs in one basket.” Stephen Hawking, the noted physicist, echoes this sentiment, arguing that human colonization of other worlds is important to insure the survival of the human race.
There are potential economic benefits: raw materials, trade (once colonies are established), energy (power satellites, Helium 3). What is the gross domestic product of planet Earth? What possible benefits could we see having another world, with its own economy? Can we predict the future gross domestic product of other worlds? What will mining the asteroid belt do to the economy? What shortages can be relieved or eliminated all together?
The Gross Domestic Product of the United States according to the CIA World Factbook for 2004 was 11.8 trillion dollars. Of that, about 16 billion was spent by the U.S. government on the space program. That amounts to 0.14 per cent of the GDP spent on space. By contrast, that means 99.86 per cent of the GDP was spent on other stuff. For those who complain that we should focus our attention on the poor or whatever their favorite concern might be, I would suggest that indeed our focus is on the poor and all those other things. Let’s put it another way. 54 dollars of your taxes that you paid this year went to the space program. Chances are you spent that much going out to dinner just once.
Since NASA began in 1958, the United States has spent, based on the current value of the dollar, 419 billion dollars on space. In contrast, just in the year 2007 alone, the United States will spend 456 billion dollars on the war in Iraq—enough to fund NASA at it’s current annual budget of 17.3 billion dollars for the next 26 years. The total United States government budget for 2007 was 2.8 trillion dollars. Of that, 586.1 billion went to Social Security. 394.5 billion for Medicare. 367 billion for unemployment and welfare. 276.4 billion for Medicaid and other health related benefits.
Weinberg, and those like him, have an opinion. But, as Douglas Adams, the author of the humorous science fiction novel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe wrote, “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”