Why We go To Mars

Why does anyone care what this doofus thinks?

Hmm. Just ate a mountain of chilli and am dizzy from the meat. Or I’m dizzy from a sinus infection. I don’t know. In either case, I’m dizzy. So if I don’t make any sense today, blame the dizziness.

I also just finished watching a year old episode of Real Time With Bill Maher, in which Ashton Kutcher went on a tirade about, “Why are we sending stuff to Mars when we have child slavery right here on Earth?!” Yes, he said those words, or something close to them. I don’t remember exactly.

Now, I see young Mr. Kutcher’s point. Our spending priorities have often been in discord with our spending needs. As a metaphor, his rant is well taken. But I actually think he was serious about dumping on the whole Mars thing, and on America’s space program in general.

Kutcher was once a student of engineering, though he dropped out before finishing his degree. So I would assume that his passing familiarity with applied science would give some deeper insight into the value of the space program. Apparently not. So let’s look at the issue for a moment.

First, let’s break down the numbers. The 2009 NASA budget was $17.2 billion, which is comparable to the budgets of both Delta Airlines and Pfizer. According to one breakdown, that’s about $1 per week for every American citizen over a whole year. I spend 20 times that amount on coffee alone. Not to be glib, but as a tax expenditure on the American federal budget, it’s not particularly large.

A 1992 article in Nature estimated the 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

This does 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.

Since Kutcher mentioned Mars specifically, let’s note that the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) missions cost NASA about $820 million. The remaining Mars budget has been cut to about $340 million.

This seems like a lot of money –and it would be, for a single person. But it’s a pittance for government. And let’s not forget that this money is being spent on employing thousands of people and on building and sustaining industries that keep entire communities afloat.

Indeed, because of the space program we have microcomputers, temperature resistant fabrics, velcro, magnificent breakthroughs in distance and telemedicine, manufacturing and material sciences, not to mention a global satellite-based communications and GPS system.

Mind you, the same logic could be applied to the military, which has dramatic economic downstream ameliorations. But while expenditures on the military eventually end up killing lots and lots of people, expenditures on the space program are not meant to kill, but rather increase scientific knowledge, propel technological advancement in a slew of areas, and ultimately open up vistas for cheaper and more efficient energy production, food production, medical care, manufacturing, propulsion, communication and computing.

So let’s gut the military, but keep on financing the space program. Solutions to many earthly problems lie beyond our gravity well. For instance, I’ve argued in this space many times that the time has come to explore the building of orbital power satellites to solve our terrestrial energy demands.

Meanwhile, reports indicate that Ashton Kutcher will get paid $10 million to pretend to be a florist in his next movie, and will receive 10% of the movie’s gross receipts. Zod only knows how much this overreacting doofus is actually worth. Exactly how does his wealth or his movie about a florist impact the werewithal of society? Maybe we should liquidate his assets to fight “child slavery”.