In Defence of Space

(This post has since been adapted into an article for The Huffington Post titled “No, Humanity Isn’t Worse Off Because Elon Musk Launched SpaceX”)

Nine years ago, I wrote this screed in response to Ashton Kutcher’s ill-informed comments about the price and benefits of the US space program. I returned to the topic two years later in this post.

It seems I must address this topic yet again, as angry activists have once more taken financial aim at expensive innovation, this time targeting space entrepreneur Elon Musk’s recent triumphant launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which, for the purposes of PR, included a Tesla sports car thrown to Mars and beyond.

It’s an easy target: a rich playboy spends hundreds of millions of dollars to put his private sports car into space. The intent of the spectacle was to demonstrate Musk’s capability to put an enormous payload into orbit and beyond: critical for potentiating the next great steps in the commercialization and exploration of deep space.

Predictable was a response by Nathan Robinson in The Guardian, titled “Why Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch is utterly depressing“. Robinson reaches for those standard activist plums: why are we sending crap to Mars when there are people dying in Syria? (Ashton Kutcher had asked “Why are we sending stuff to Mars when there’s still child slavery?” And my response was, “Why are we paying Ashton Kutcher to make movies when there’s still child slavery and planets to explore?”).

If Robinson’s point was to use Musk’s triumph to draw attention to the ills that still infect our world, then that is an admirable goal and he should be applauded for it. If his point, on the other hand, was to shame the world into withdrawing its enthusiasm for Musk’s ventures, then that is a shameful tack indeed.

Robinson argues that we should not celebrate a billionaire’s casual waste of a fortune while there exist crises in need of financial attention here on Earth. In essence, the ills he identifies are ills of poverty. Insecure housing? Insufficient health care? Poor primary education? All of these factors are highly correlated, and probably causally associated, with poverty. By reducing poverty, a strong argument goes, we can address most of the crises that Robinson perceives in the world.

As noted in an earlier lecture, there is mountain of objective evidence that global poverty is declining. China alone reduced its poverty rate from nearly 90% in 1981 to under 2% today. It bothers a good socialist like me to admit, but China accomplished this Herculean feat by embracing market reforms. (Yes, there is some debate about whether the Chinese government accomplished this feat, or whether it was the actions of the people, by casting off a generation of Maoist backwardness; regardless, it was done by rejecting the planned economy in favour of entrepreneurial zeal.) Modern capitalism has, I must acknowledge, lifted more people out of poverty than any other force in human history.

The NASA budget is just under $20 billion. The latest valuation of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is about $21 billion. This is comparable to the size of a major airline, like United, which holds assets worth about $39 billion. And since Robinson spent a lot of time talking about suffering in Syria, it’s useful to note that the Syrian economy is worth $65 billion.

Robinson’s core claim is that SpaceX’s venture is a “waste of resources”.  What else are wastes of resources? Well, how about companies that make nothing other than entertainment? Disney is valued at about $160 billion. How is the production of endless Marvel movies not a comparable waste of money that could otherwise be spent on serving the public good?

Well, the argument goes, Disney creates wealth and value, feeds the soul, and employs countless thousands of people. Beyond the obvious observation that this not how economics works –if United and SpaceX did not exist, those combined $60 billion of valuation would not magically become liquid and available for direct investment in Syrian refugee camps, there is the realization that those entities do not exist in isolation; they are tied to a deep root system that links them to the needs and fortunes of vast human communities.

Let’s look at what the space industry does. As I noted in an earlier post, a 1992 article in Nature estimated these economic benefits to the American taxpayer wrought by the space program:

  • $21.6 billion in sales and benefits
  • 352,000 (mostly skilled) jobs created or saved
  • $355 million in federal corporate income taxes
  • $95 billion to U.S. economic activity
  • $1.5 billion return on investment in the form of sold commercial goods and services

I also noted that these numbers “do not include the economic impact on local communities benefiting from the influx of new industries and professionals, nor on the long term economic advantages of all the spin-off products and technologies. For example, many of the materials advances of the space program gave us the stuff from which our current generation of outdoor gear was developed; the economy of sales of camping gear does not factor into the above calculus.”

Elon Musk’s space venture is primarily a for-profit commercial venture. However, it produces wealth and income for hundreds of employees and thousands of downstream benefactors. Musk creates new technologies, some of them with the potential to help free us from environment-wasting fossil fuel dependence. He creates entire new sectors and a career pipeline for young scientists seeking to create more value, multiplying across future generations. All of this amounts to increased societal wealth, limitedly concentrated; in other words, if well managed, his venture contributes incrementally to global poverty reduction.

So where is the resource waste that Robinson really needs to scorn and scold? Well, a single new Ford class aircraft carrier costs the US taxpayer $10 billion…. half the total valuation of SpaceX. And its purpose is not to employ thousands, lift thousands more out of poverty, combat environmental degradation, explore the universe, or train young scientists. Its purpose is to kill people.

So, Mr Robinson, while SpaceX captured the world’s attention for a brief moment this week, that achievement is not licence for you to decry the impressive technological accomplishments of one man and his little space company. Rather, turn your attention to the sector that consistently wastes the largest proportion of public resources for no greater virtue than mass murder: military overspending.

Space exploration shall be our salvation –economically, spiritually, technologically, and possibly even ecologically. We denude it at our peril, especially in service of unspecific, misdirected and naive activist goals.