Is Space Exploration Worth It?
How advances in space shape the future of Earth
July 20, 1969. The day the world changed forever.
You could say it began earlier that decade, when a president dared his countrymen to cast their gaze to space.
Or you could say it had its origins hundreds of thousands of years before, when our distant ancestors first looked to the heavens … and wondered what was out there, beyond their reach.
Regardless of when it started, something new happened that day. For the first time in the history of the species … a human being set foot on something other than the planet Earth.
It was an accomplishment unlike any in the history of the world. And the reaction amongst the people of the country that pulled it off was…
“Meh. I guess it’s fine … if that’s your thing.”
Folks, it doesn’t get much wilder than the 20th century. From the beginning of time until December 16, 1903, humans didn’t fly. Then, on December 17, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers changed all that.
So, how’s this for progress? It takes about 300,000 years for humans to get a plane in the sky … for about 12 seconds.i And then, within just another 66 years … we’re standing on the surface of the moon. Boy, talk about your late bloomers.
But while we now look back on the glory days of the space race as a rare moment of national unity … nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, polling records show that for almost the entirety of the 1960s, a majority of Americans didn’t think that the Apollo program’s mission to the moon was worth the cost.ii Many of them believed that money would have been better spent helping the poor here on Earth.iii
In the more than half a century since then, human endeavors in space have changed a lot. Today, for instance, much of the investment in space is coming from the private sector. But at least one thing has stayed the same: A lot of people still think it’s a waste. And sure, some of them are just cranky dudes on the internet, but some of them are also … future kings.
[Clip of Prince William criticizing focus on space rather than Earth]
First off, let’s remember: He’s British royalty. We fought a war for the right to not have to listen to them.
But second: Does he have a point? I mean, there are plenty of problems on Earth. Is space exploration really worth the effort … and the cost?
Well, if you’re like many Americans, the cost is probably a lot less than you think. One famous survey found that Americans estimated that NASA gets about ¼ of the entire federal budget.iv And if that were the case … we’d have a Disneyland on Saturn.
The actual amount of the federal budget that goes to NASA: less than one half of one percent.v In fact, we spend almost 16 times as much just on interest payments for the national debt.
So, the cost: not as much you think. And the benefits: probably way more than you think.
Let’s start with a pretty basic one: KEEPING SPACE FROM MURDERING US!
Yeah, no space program, no mechanism in place to try to detect planet-killing asteroids. And the security implications go beyond protecting us from homicidal space rocks. It’s also a matter of protecting us from our adversaries.
The intelligence community reports that the combined Chinese and Russian space fleets grew by 70 percent just between 2019 and 2021.vi Part of the reason: Because, as that same report notes, China sees the ability to disable American satellites as a way to shut down our use of precision weapons, a strategy designed to “blind and deafen the enemy.”vii
Even North Korea has a space program … though, so far, it’s just a guy with a jetpack on a trampoline.
And these kinds of national security concerns are one reason we may want to take it a bit easier on the billionaires. After the U.S. ended its space shuttle program in 2011, American astronauts couldn’t even get into space unless they traveled on Russian spacecraft. Which Vladimir Putin was kind enough to allow … at $86 million a seat.viii
The reason that’s come to an end? Because now our astronauts can get to space using Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Which is also likely to have benefits here on Earth. SpaceX hopes to harness the same reusable rockets that send our astronauts to space to someday transport passengers anyplace in the world in under an hour. They estimate that the trip from New York City to Shanghai … will take 39 minutes.ix So, roughly the length of the safety video.
And this wouldn’t be the first time that technology designed for space has revolutionized life here on Earth. NASA is a big part of why we have the cameras in our cell phonesx — and, the GPS systems.xi Their technology is central to CAT scansxii and the methods we use to de-ice planes.xiii Hell, they even provided the gold coating that’s used for an Oscar.xiv
Ok, don’t hold that one against them.
The technology involved in heart transplants, cochlear implants, and artificial limbs? From NASA.xv Enriched baby formula? From NASA.xvi The tech we use to clean up oil spills? NASA.xvii
Tang? Not from NASA, please stop saying it is. xviii
Bottom line: We don’t go to space as a hobby. We go as an investment … in our safety, in our technology, and in our future.
And yes, we also go to space for the sake of discovery itself. To answer the kinds of questions that captivated our ancestors centuries ago:
What’s out there?
What don’t we know?
…How exactly do the North Koreans think this is going to work?
- A Look Back at the Wright Brothers’ First Flight — Manned Space Flight Education Foundation
- "Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of U.S. Human Spaceflight" (Roger D. Launius) — Space Policy
- “While NASA Was Landing on the Moon, Many African Americans Sought Economic Justice Instead” (Bryan Greene) — Smithsonian Magazine
- “Sustaining Exploration: Communications, Relevance, and Value” (Mary Lynne Dittmar) — The Space Review
- Your Guide to NASA's Budget — The Planetary Society
- Historical Tables — White House Office of Management and Budget
- Challenges to Security in Space: Space Reliance in an Era of Competition and Expansion — U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency
- “The U.S. Hitches Its Final Ride to Space From Russia — For Now” (Daniel Oberhaus) — Wired
- “NYC to Shanghai in 40 Minutes: SpaceX’s Goal for Point-to-Point Space Travel” (Michael Sheetz) — CNBC
- CMOS Sensors Enable Phone Cameras, HD Video — NASA Spinoff
- Highly Accurate GPS Is Possible Thanks to NASA — NASA
- The Inside View — NASA Spinoff
- Anti-Icing Technology — NASA
- Gold Coating Keeps Oscars Bright — NASA Spinoff
- 40 Years of NASA Spinoff — NASA
- Are Tang, Teflon, and Velcro NASA Spinoffs? — NASA
SOUND | Artlist: “Rock Your Body” (FASSounds), “Ticketless” (Francesco D’Andrea), “When the Sunrise” (Yehezkel), “Wireless Connections” (Evgeny Bardyuzha), “Still Need Syndrome” (Yarin Primak), “Bytes” (Sineyourlifeaway), SFX Library // Premium Beat: “Yankee Doodle Dandy (Tin Whistle)” (Dominik Schwarzer)
FOOTAGE | NASA: JFK Library: NASA // Space Archive: Apollo 13 Transmission (1970) // Apollo Flight Journal: NASA via Stephen Slater // Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs: Alejandro Pena // NASA: Neil Armstrong, Goddard / University of Arizona, ESA / NOIRLab, NSF / AURA / M.H. Wong and I. de Pater (UC Berkeley) et al., Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, Jet Propulsion Labratory, HQ, Blausen Medical Communication Inc., Stephen Slater, Peter Rubin // U.S. Coast Guard: John Roberts USCG // Department of Defense // National Park Service // BBC // Space.com // San Diego Union Tribune // Archive.org: Television Tomorrow (1945) // CBS Productions: Gunsmoke (1967) // Baldwin Locomotive Works // U.S. National Archives & Records Administration: Rowland Sherman, U.S. Food Administration // Yale Center for British Art: James Pollard // Rijksmuseum: Robert Jacob Gordon // The Royal Society: Debbie Rowe // Getty: Car Court / Staff, Kurt Hutton / Stringer, Bill Ingalls / NASA / Handout, NASA / Handout, Anna Sargeeva / Stringer, Man_Half-tube, Paul Morigi /Stringer, Joe Raedle / Staff, Hulton Archive / Stringer, Pool / Pool, Drew Angerer / Staff, Kevork Djansezian / Stringer, Michael Staff / Staff, SteveColeImages, Narvikk, Tim Paulawitz, Circotasu, Science Photo Library, Ianm35, Bettmann / Contributor, Heritage Images / Stringer, Koh Sze Kiat // Flickr: Project Apollo Archive, Jiugang Wang, NASA Kennedy, Jarl Naustvik, West Midlands Police, NASA on the Commons, Uri Tours // Adobe Stock: Prapann, Fotofabrika, Railwayfx, Studio-FI, Геннадий Кулиненко, Norikko, Lukszcezepanski, Sdecoret, King God, Naranat Studio, Tostphoto, Marina // Pexels: SpaceX, RODNAE Productions, Pixabay, Nicole Avagliano, Hristo Fidanov, Phillippe Donn, Soulful Pizza, Craig Adderly, João Vítor Heinrichs, Everdeen Li, Alex Andrews, Abet Llacer, Mike B., Cottonbro // Storyblocks: Oles Ischuk, Dapoopta, SpaceStockFootage, Berkerdag, Eternal, Icetray, Embarafootage // Unsplash: Sidekix Media // Pixabay: Clker-Free-Vector-Images // Twitter: @sussyamongus // Amazon: Wee Blue Coo Store // The Cave Boy of the Age of Stone by Margaret A. McIntyre: Irma Deremeaux // Engineers Club Dayton: Martel Art // Russia // Senate of Berlin // Servier Medical Art // The People’s Republic of China // Gary Todd // Dmitry A. Mottl // Corrine Launay // Hear hear! // Mr. Kjetil Ree // Stefan Fussan // Ralph Roletschek // Ralph X. Williams III // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION // THE NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION “NASA” HAS NOT SPONSORED OR ENDORSED THIS VIDEO OR ANY OF ITS CONTENTS.
- Manned Space Flight Education Foundation
A Look Back at the Wright Brothers’ First Flight
- Space Policy
"Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of U.S. Human Spaceflight" (Roger D. Launius)
- Smithsonian Magazine
“While NASA Was Landing on the Moon, Many African Americans Sought Economic Justice Instead” (Bryan Greene)
- The Space Review
“Sustaining Exploration: Communications, Relevance, and Value” (Mary Lynne Dittmar)
- The Planetary Society
Your Guide to NASA's Budget
- White House Office of Management and Budget
- U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency
Challenges to Security in Space: Space Reliance in an Era of Competition and Expansion
“The U.S. Hitches Its Final Ride to Space From Russia — For Now” (Daniel Oberhaus)
“NYC to Shanghai in 40 Minutes: SpaceX’s Goal for Point-to-Point Space Travel” (Michael Sheetz)
- NASA Spinoff
CMOS Sensors Enable Phone Cameras, HD Video
Highly Accurate GPS Is Possible Thanks to NASA
- NASA Spinoff
The Inside View
- NASA Spinoff
Gold Coating Keeps Oscars Bright
40 Years of NASA Spinoff
Are Tang, Teflon, and Velcro NASA Spinoffs?
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “Space Exploration and U.S. Competitiveness” (Council on Foreign Relations)
- “Moondoggle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program” (The Atlantic)
- “The Future of Space Exploration Depends on the Private Sector” (National Review)
- “Why We Should Be Spending More on Space Travel” (Time)
- “Congress Can’t Agree on Big Things. Let Billionaires Handle Space” (Washington Post)
- “No, Billionaires Won’t Escape to Space While the World Burns” (Salon)
- The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility, by Robert Zubrin
- Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, by Brandon J. Weichert