I was five when we landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind. I like to think I remember staring at the TV screen in wonder. But I was five. The memory is a little suspect.
At 14 or 15, I found a copy of Gerard K. O’Neill’s book, The High Frontier, on the library shelves. If you haven’t been a big reader of space nonfiction of a certain generation, you may not know about O’Neill. He was a Princeton physicist and in the years following Apollo, he crafted a plan to build space colonies and solar power satellites near Earth. His vision got a lot of attention at the time. In those days, a few years after the Moon walks, an incredible future seemed just over the horizon. Big things were possible. Reading O’Neill’s book, it really seemed likely there would be Americans living in space colonies in my lifetime.
Nor were visions like these the stuff of academics (and teenage boys) alone. In the exuberant days after Apollo, NASA had a grandiose program planned out. Von Braun planned to circle Mars by 1975. In Figure 1 below, NASA planned to have 100 men in Low Earth Orbit by 1990, 40 living on the Moon, and a couple of dozen in a semi-permanent base on Mars.
This was heady stuff.
Of course, as we know today, it didn’t happen.
So where are we now?
Today, space remains the sole province of an elite few astronauts fielded by a small number of governments and a handful of the super wealthy that can afford to pay the price even at full freight. With the exception of the Moon landings 50 years ago, no human has traveled further than Low Earth Orbit, barely a few hundred miles above the surface.
Beyond the hype of billionaires and dreamers, there is no credible plan to seize the high frontier. There is no grand vision to unite around. We have a failure to launch.
That’s not the way it was supposed to be and there are many that share that opinion.
Jaron Lanier, a technology visionary credited with inventing virtual reality and an author of several books on technology, points out that people of his generation dreamed of moon colonies and flying cars, and he bluntly says, ‘I miss the future.”1
A prominent group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, The Founder’s Fund, published a Manifesto not long ago that offered a similar sentiment: “The future that people in the 1960s hoped to see is still the future we’re waiting for today, half a century later.. Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo.”2
An article in MIT Technology Review, ‘Why we can’t solve big problems,’ laments that we don’t do big things anymore and a moon shot remains, well, out of shot. They sum up the situation thus: “This is not 1961: there is no galvanizing historical context akin to the Cold War, no likely politician who can heroize the difficult and dangerous, no body of engineers who yearn for the productive regimentation they had enjoyed in the military, and no popular faith in a science-fictional mythology such as exploring the solar system.”3
Then there is the author of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe, who wrote in the New York Times on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo landing that our space program has been ‘killing time’ with sub-orbital projects for the last 40 years. Ten years on, he could have resubmitted the same op-ed word-for-word on the occasion of Apollo’s 50th anniversary.4
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, one of the nation’s most prominent astrophysicists, science commentators, and the host of the remade TV series Cosmos worries that America is ‘fading’ and that we have lost the power to dream. He sees NASA as one of those last institutions that inspired big dreams in all of us and laments the current shortfall of funding as a sign of deeper problems.5
Things clearly didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to. The question is why.
Some would blame the fickleness of politicians and the divisiveness and lack of vision in our politics. But politicians are no one’s fools. They are a class of people that know how to sense the wind and cater to what people want. They know how to play on aspirations, dreams, and hopes (and baser motivations as well, but we shan’t go there). They have tried to provide a vision to rally around more than once.
In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the Moon landings, President George H.W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). This was a grand plan that included funding for Space Station Freedom, returning to the moon, and going on to Mars. A follow-up commission projected a moon landing by 2001 and a landing on Mars by 2008. But that same commission also came back with a sticker price of nearly $500 billion over the 20-30 year life of the program. With that price tag, the entire program was effectively dead on arrival at Congress.
The Clinton Administration took the lead to build the International Space Station jointly with the Russians in 1998, a construction process that took over 10 years. That one happened, but it sucked dry the budget for everything else.
In 2004, George W. Bush announced a Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), an initiative to return Americans to the moon by 2020, within 16 years. He inaugurated the Constellation program which included building a large rocket to get us back into space.
Less than five years later, on entering office, the Obama Administration convened a blue ribbon commission headed by Norman Augustine, former head of Lockheed Martin. That panel came back saying the cost of Constellation was too expensive and behind schedule to boot. They advocated a different, more flexible approach.
President Obama quickly killed Constellation and redirected NASA to implement the Augustin Commission’s recommendations which included a new launcher, a new flexible architecture, and a new set of timelines. The new plan called for visiting an asteroid by the mid-2020’s and landing on Mars by the mid-2030s. As noted, President Obama also squashed NASA’s dreams of returning to the moon as so much ‘been there, done that’. But the Obama Administration also began a push to privatize space launches through ‘Commercial Crew’, a contract program to carry astronauts to the International Space Station on private rockets. Boeing and SpaceX were the primary contractors.
The Trump Administration made a few changes of its own once in office in 2017. First, the President re-established a National Space Council chaired by the Vice President to direct America’s activities in space. Second, the Administration captured attention by creating a new, sixth branch of the military when the U.S. Space Force was announced in June, 2018. Despite early skepticism, the formal act establishing the Space Force was signed in December, 2019.
In addition, the Trump Administration redirected NASA’s space effort towards the moon, creating the Artemis program. Initially, NASA’s goal was to land a crew on the moon in 2028, but then Vice President Mike Pence suddenly announced a faster schedule in March, 2019, targeting a moon landing by 2024, at the close of a notional second term for President Trump. However, the cost of the proposed Artemis moon landing was estimated at an additional $30 billion on top of NASA’s current budget and Congress has yet to allocate the additional money.6
Even as the political and budgetary challenges continue, the year 2020 was also the year that SpaceX realized the original goal of the Commercial Crew vision by successfully launching on May 30, 2020, the first two American astronauts to travel to the International Space Station aboard an American rocket since the Space Shuttle stopped flying nearly a decade earlier.
When you read this list of initiatives several themes pop out. For the last 30 years, just about every President has launched a big program in space with great fanfare and a vision that sees us visiting other worlds in 15-20 years – usually after they have left office and with little additional funding. And the goal posts keep moving back with every subsequent administration.
The last big commission was organized by the National Research Council and funded by Congress. It came out in the summer of 2014 repeating a similar criticism of earlier reviews – not enough budget, likely to run over, and echoing, like the ones before, the need for a flexible approach and more money. While the Trump Administration announced more aggressive goals, it, too, has been hamstrung by a lack of funding from Congress, leaving many of its goals in question.
Politicians keep announcing new programs. Congress keeps shorting the budget. Commissions keep revisiting the same problem and coming to many of the same conclusions. The public remains mostly ambivalent and seemingly unaware.
The state of the American space program, which is being constantly reinvented without actually ever getting anywhere, has sounded a lot like the marketing slogan for the sci-fi film, Edge of Tomorrow, which was: ‘Live. Die. Repeat.’ Unfortunately, the truer comparison would be if the main character in that film never gets off the beach.
While private sector visionaries like Elon Musk talk about colonizing Mars and Jeff Bezos dreams of millions working and living in space, the truth is both of these visions would currently require massive amounts of public funding and support to realize and, as yet, no political figure has signed on.
At this point, the idea that humans will expand and grow out into the solar system remains solely in the realm of science fiction, continually stuck some 20+ years from now, where it has been since the late 1980s. The NASA plan from the 1970s suggesting we would have 100 people in low earth orbit, 40 on the moon, and two dozen living on Mars within 20 years now looks stunningly ambitious more than a generation later.
Our public vision has become much, much smaller.
Grounds for Hope
Despite this litany of frustrated ambitions, there are hints that the public at large may harbor a more aspirational and ambitious view of the future than its governing classes. Survey questions posed by the Pew Charitable Trust over the last 20 years offer some intriguing insights on what Americans might be thinking.
A 1999 Pew survey found widespread optimism about the future in space with 76% predicting humans would land on Mars and 57% that ordinary people would travel in space.7
In 2010, 53% of Americans envisioned ordinary people traveling in space in 50 years and 63% expected humans to land on Mars (slightly fewer for college educated than those without college).8
In April, 2014, Pew’s survey of ‘US View of Technology and the Future’ found that 33% of American believed there will be colonies on other planets in the next 50 years (64% do not). Younger adults are more likely (43%) to believe this, but among adults with higher income (over 75k) who presumably might have to pay for it, just 20% see this as likely.9
Once again in 2018, a Pew survey found that half of all Americans believe space tourism will be routine within 50 years, but that is just an average. Looking at the Millennial population (those under 40) and the same survey found 63% believe it will be routine to travel in space as a tourist.10
These public polls hint that Americans might believe something bigger is possible. Mind you, public perception is part aspiration and wishful thinking and part educated opinion and desired outcome. But what Americans have been saying about their expectations of the future is instructive.
How then can we reconcile what seems like higher expectations and aspirations by the public on one side with the failure to launch to date and the seemingly tepid warmth to any greater funding or prioritization of space exploration which is the flip side of public opinion? There is a standard set of explanations that come up repeatedly to explain why our space program has failed to launch. The roster of culprits includes the perfidy of politicians, the fickleness of voters, and the lack of a geopolitical rival. But none of these really seem to suffice. The standard reasoning seems a bit incomplete.
If we want to rouse the public, we need to understand why we have failed to do so already. We need a framework for understanding the structural limitations of public support by answering the fundamental question of why public opinion views space exploration as 16th on a list of 18 priorities and is largely lukewarm to more funding for NASA. Finally, if we are going to articulate an alternative vision, we have to do so with the same boundaries and constraints in mind and be able to articulate a strategy for how to overcome them.
A pragmatic assessment of why we have not been more expansive in space these past 50 years is the key to any ambitious vision, alternative or otherwise. It is my contention that we have not achieved a robust program of space exploration for five core reasons:
- It’s (too) Expensive
- Earthly Priorities > Space Exploration
- There’s No (Direct) Payback
- There’s no Blank Check
- It’s an Elite Sport
Reason #1: It’s (too) Expensive.
Space exploration is expensive.
Wallace Fowler, a professor of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas, calculated the total inflation-adjusted cost of all of NASA’s programs since its inception in 1958 through 2014 as over $900 billion, a number that covers Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle, and the Space Station as well as all of NASA’s other programs.11
Writing in Space.com, Claude Lafleur offered an estimate more specific to space exploration by humans. He calculated the total cost in 2010 dollars for US Piloted space programs (e.g. human spaceflight involving astronauts) as a total of $486 billion from 1959 to 2015.12 This total differs from the overall NASA budget because NASA also supports and funds multiple aeronautical, science, and engineering programs in addition to programs that put astronauts in space.
Lafleur’s own site on ‘ U.S. Piloted Program Costs’, offers specifics and interesting data points about the cost of human spaceflight on a per mission basis.
Some examples in constant 2010 dollars:
- The 11 Apollo piloted flights cost $9.9 billion per flight.
- The Apollo lunar landings (6 in total) effectively cost $18 billion per landing.
- Each Space Shuttle flight cost $1.5 billion per flight.
- The cost to support an astronaut at the International Space Station is $7.5 million per day.
These numbers are subject to debate and interpretation, but they appear at a minimum to be directionally correct.
The incremental cost of each flight might be less. NASA, for instance, has suggested that the cost of each Space Shuttle flight averaged out to a far lower number of $450 million per launch.13 This is probably true as far as it goes, which is to say the purely incremental cost of each launch. However, most analysts consider the full program cost of research and development as well as all related supporting costs and then amortize that across the total number of missions or flights to arrive at an average total cost per flight.
On these grounds, there appears to be broad consensus that the cost of each Space Shuttle launch was closer to $1.5 billion when you look at the total cost of the program over its entire life, essentially similar to LaFleur’s numbers.14
What is beyond debate is that it is incredibly expensive to support a person in space. They also suggest that – all things being constant – the cost of space exploration will remain extremely expensive in the future.
The National Research Council’s 2014 investigation of various pathways to a Mars landing, a goal set by the Obama Administration, illustrates how expensive exploration will be in the future. The current funding for human exploration related programs is on the order of ~$8 billion per year, and this has been the long-term trend for many years. Yet, that funding would need to grow in order to achieve a landing before 2050. Based on various scenarios outlined by the NRC, the cumulative cost to land humans on Mars may be in the range of $400 billion and it may take nearly 50 years based on current budgets and/or modest increases to actually achieve the goal of humans on Mars. The Commission notes that there may be unforeseen advances in technology or innovation that could make costs lower and the timeline quicker. But there may also be unforeseen failures and delays.
The NRC compares the cost of landing astronauts on Mars as equivalent to 75-150 top line, flagship robotic missions costing $1-$2 billion each to destinations around the solar system or roughly twice the budget of the National Science Foundation during the same period.
It’s possible to get there faster if we increase the tempo of operations (and the budget) by a healthy margin, but these costs are not small and belie the long-term funding support Congress appears to have been willing to grant over the decades. Funding has become the natural speed-limit, or threshold, to all plans for operating in space.
What these numbers and the accompanying analysis show is that exploration is very expensive and budgetary support is very soft. The NRC estimated some scenarios that project a landing between 2037 and 2045, but these options would require an increase in funding above the $8 billion per year that has been the long-term trend. Their overall conclusion was thus:
“Examination of the schedule- and budget-driven affordability scenarios for each pathway indicates, independent of the ISS extension, that the pathways using historical mission rates are not affordable, and affordable pathways based on an HSF budget increasing with inflation are not sustainable. “ (Source: National Research Council, Pathways to Exploration, Section 18.104.22.168)
What they are saying, in plain English, is that the current budget won’t support launching astronauts often enough to meet the goals we have set and that past history suggests a larger budget for exploration won’t be forthcoming.
There is another point to be made, perhaps an obvious one.
The cost of landing astronauts on Mars will be much more expensive than the cost of the Apollo missions when the full program costs are considered (estimated as noted earlier at over $18 billion per Lunar landing). This makes sense because Mars is much further away. The technologies and the hardware needed to get there and get back safely are more elaborate and expensive. You have to send larger vehicles to carry a larger quantity of supplies (food, water, etc.). You have to make sure astronauts are healthy when they return. Instead of a two-week mission to the Lunar surface and a fast return, a roundtrip to Mars will be many months in duration.
Thus, the cost of going further and deeper into space is simply going to be much higher on a per mission and per person basis than it was to go to the Moon when measured in constant dollars.
The lesson here is that exploration is expensive and the further out we go, the deeper into space we explore, the more expensive it is going to be. We’ve already plucked the low hanging fruit of our own Moon, which is fairly close.
It is worth noting that there exists an alternative debate in some circles on the view that the private sector might be able to deliver space exploration missions at a fraction of the cost and time that NASA can.
We should tread with caution here. A private mission to Mars or the Moon might well be feasible and cheaper. We might well be able to find private sector astronauts or customers who are willing to take on the extraordinary risk. Exploration probably can be done leaner, faster, and cheaper.16
But that does not mean that there are no hidden costs to be considered. If there is an accident or a miscalculation, we will have private sector astronauts adrift in space on a countdown to doom. It hardly matters if they are from the private sector or not. If the mission goes wrong and we have a media circus and calls to do ‘something’ matched with a daily litany of progress reports and pleas for help, it will be to government that the public will turn and to which the hard questions will be put. A private sector initiative may be more cost-effective and faster, but the full risk and cost would need to be considered, including the potential political and legal consequences of any failure.
Overall, space exploration today remains incredibly expensive. It is not cheap to train and field astronauts, to develop the rockets and space hardware necessary to transport them there and back, and to regain the experience we have not had in missions beyond low earth orbit. To-date, despite numerous initiatives announced to great fanfare, the price tag has been deemed too expensive to pursue space exploration with full vigor.
Reason #2: Earthly Priorities > Space Exploration
When Nixon cut funding to the Apollo program after the first lunar landing, he pointed out that budgets must be weighed against rigorous national priorities.17 At the time, the Apollo program consumed nearly 4% of the entire federal budget, or nearly .8% of GDP.18
As a result of that budget cut, some people blame Nixon for the state of our space program today. In the larger narrative, he’s the villain who cut off funding and kept us from achieving a greater destiny in space. But this makes zero sense. Nixon was merely stating the obvious. The suggestion that budgets must be viewed in the context of national priorities is crushingly obvious. In a democracy, all budgets must pass a test of rigorous national priorities.
By 1970, when Nixon was assessing national priorities competing for funds, his list would have been rather long and would have included:
- The Vietnam War with nearly 500,000 troops in southeast Asia,
- Desegregating the South where at the start of his term the vast majority of African-American youth were in segregated schools,
- Environmental problems leading to millions rallying for the first Earth Day and subsequently leading to the Clean Air Act, the EPA and a Department of Natural Resources,
- Poverty reduction and income assistance for the poor,
- A troubled economy with increasing inflation and unemployment (Nixon imposed wage and price controls and dismantled the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates in 1971 in what was called the Nixon Shock),
- Civil protest and race riots across the land,
- Rapidly increasing crime throughout the 1960s and 1970s (violent crime more than doubled between 1960 and 1970).
These were the events taking place against the backdrop of the Apollo moon landings at the start of the decade. Overall, the decade of the 70s was exceptionally busy with a long list of national priorities and conflicting demands for time, attention, and resources.
Globally the Cold War was in full swing, there was a war in the Middle East (Yom Kippur, 1973), OPEC imposed embargoes several times, terrorists struck at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and there was a Cold War move to open up of China by Nixon and Kissinger.
Against that list and with Americans dying on far shores, economic hard times and the looming shadow of Watergate, astronaut’s driving moon buggies and playing golf on the moon must have looked incredibly wasteful.
Without a compelling strategic or political rationale, it is not hard to understand Nixon’s point of view. The pressures and priorities he would have been trying to balance and the resources he had at hand to allocate were finite. The decision to cut funding for NASA in the face of all these competing priorities does not seem particularly surprising.
Several events closed out the 1970s. The Russians invaded Afghanistan, American hostages were seized in Iran, and, Skylab, the American space station fell out of the sky in 1979 because we didn’t have the technology (read: rocket) to deliver fuel to lift it into a more stable orbit.
Then came the 1980s.
Reagan and the Republican revolution dominated that decade. When Reagan took office, it was against a backdrop of a festering Cold War and deteriorating domestic economy haunted by stagflation. Like them or not, Reagan’s priorities reflected his desire to confront the Soviet Union, reboot the American economy, and establish a different ideological vision for America.
Reagan faced a major economic crisis and recession in 1982 with a period of crushingly high interest rates (the decade started with interest rates over 20%) and high unemployment. He promoted ‘Supply-side economics’, a contentious theory that putting more money back into people’s pockets would inspire economic growth and would trickle down as jobs and income to poorer people. He fundamentally changed the tax structure, significantly reducing rates at all income levels. He faced off against unions, most visibly with the Air Traffic Controller strike of 1981 in which he fired over 11,000 air traffic controllers for going on strike illegally. He won tax cuts from Congress, but comprised on budgets and adjustments to his rates.
During his watch, AIDs broke-out as a major new disease in America and an epidemic of crime and addiction fueled by crack cocaine began to take off in America’s cities. The stock market crashed in 1987 and then recovered. He faced a scandal and crisis over arms for hostages that became known as Contragate, or the Iran-Contra affair.
Around the world Great Britain and Argentina went to war over the Falklands. The Soviets were waging proxy wars all around the third world and had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Marines were bombed in Beirut. The Iran-Iraq war raged in the Middle East. The US was, itself, pursuing a proxy war in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. There were vociferous debates about basing U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, talks of détente with the Russians, and a challenge to Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
And then, of course, mid-decade, there was the Challenger disaster that put the space program in a tailspin. The decade ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989.
A lot happened in the 1980s and there were many competing priorities for resources.
The 1990s were also interesting. It started with Iraq invading Kuwait and a war led by the United States to remove them. The Bosnian War erupted in the heart of Europe as Yugoslavia broke up. The Soviet Union broke up. A dynamic, young Democrat Governor named Bill Clinton won the White House. A congressman named Newt Gingrich created a Contract with America. The second Republican revolution witnessed partisan polarization, a government shutdown, and the first time in decades that the government balanced its budget by paring back on Defense spending and cutting welfare rolls.
Then came the first decade of the new millennium, from 2000-2009, which was also a period of momentous events.
That decade opened with a disputed election (Bush vs. Gore) and rapidly proceeded to the 9/11 terror assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in which four airplanes were hijacked and nearly 3,000 Americans killed. That in turn led to war in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq and more broadly a Global War on Terror that ran throughout the decade and into the next. In the middle of the decade, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas, killing seven astronauts. Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. The decade ended with the election of the first African-American President (Barack Obama), the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, a global pandemic (Swine Flu), albeit with modest impact, and the rise of a domestic Tea Party movement that would greatly heighten partisanship and political gridlock.
The years from 2010-2016 included a halting recovery from economic crisis, the passage of national health care in a contentious political environment, a change of hands of the House of Representatives to Republicans, wars in the Middle East, brinkmanship over government debt and threats of a shutdown and default. Globally, we have seen the collapse of Syria, the rise of ISIS, terror attacks around the world. Our politics looks broken across the Western world. Political elites are being rejected by their publics from Brexit to the rise of extremist parties and outsider candidates at home and abroad to the electoral victory of Donald Trump in the US General Election.
Since 2016, there have been four tumultuous years of increasing domestic tensions and polarization, driven by the upending of norms and customs and the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Donald Trump may get an outsize treatment in the history books, but the underlying trends were well established before he entered office. In office, he embarked on trade wars with both our allies and China and conducted an assault on the institutions created by the United States to manage the free world from the UN to the World Trade Organization. Trump confronted immigration with walls, cages and legal restrictions. He defied the world on the environment and climate change by withdrawing from the Paris Accords, backing coal, and eliminating rules on pollution. He confronted multiple crises in 2020 that simultaneously involved a global pandemic, massive civil unrest and protests for racial justice, and an explosion of wildfires across the western US driven by increasingly challenging drought conditions.
With this litany of events across the decades, there is a simple point to be made: Times are always interesting and complicated. That is a fundamental reality and it will always be the case. It’s time to stop looking backwards through rose-tinted glasses. There will always be compelling national priorities that trump high-minded aspirations, whatever they are and wherever they are focused.
The miracle is that we stuck with the Apollo program in the 1960s and saw it through, but this was influenced by a dramatic sense of urgency and a one-time, single-minded goal of beating the Russians in the midst of a Cold War ideological struggle. It has shown no staying power as a rationale for future spending. The future will not look like the past and the challenges will not stop coming. In fact, they will get worse.
The Congressional Budget Office’s Long-term budget outlook for 2020 shows the impact of two major crises in the last 12 years. The Great Recession caused our Federal debt held by the public to grow from 35% of GDP in 2006 to nearly 76% of GDP by 2016. As a result of the global pandemic in 2020, federal debt has risen steeply and will hit 98% of GDP by the end of 2020. Total Federal debt is forecasted to surpass the highest levels of World War 2 (106% of GDP) by 2023. 19
The trajectory of debt accumulation is estimated to stabilize in the 2020s before rising steeply thereafter. The big-ticket items driving higher debt include entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), interest on the national debt as rates tick up, and the challenge to fund investments from education to infrastructure. These problems looked challenging before the Great Recession. Then the Pandemic hit. Today, there is more debt and less room to maneuver. The 2020s look set to be a contentious struggle over debt and spending.
Meanwhile there is an ongoing debate in which some sides say the forecasts dramatically understate the liabilities we have signed up for even as we face big issues such as inequality, poverty, climate change, and a stagnating middle class all of which will compete for resources, attention, and leadership.20
In summary, there are two simple points to be made. The first is that government programs are always facing the gauntlet of criticism and cost, particularly in a democracy. There needs to be an enormously compelling case if there is any hope of a significant expenditure of public funds. The second is that times are going to get dramatically tougher in the coming years as a consequence of two major crises in 12 years that nearly tripled our debt-to-GDP ratio.
Space exploration, in this context, continually comes up short because earthly priorities are so compelling, urgent, and endless. There is simply not enough funding to go around, a challenge that will be even more contentious in the future.
Reason #3: There’s No (Direct) Payback
To my mind, perhaps the most shocking surprise in the NRC Pathways Report of 2014 was the admission that there was no compelling single rationale for human spaceflight. Here it is in their words: “No single rationale alone seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight.”
This is a big concession to make and it could not have come easily.
The Commission compared a variety of rationales which they broke down into a set of five common categories including economic, security, national stature and international relations, education and inspiration, scientific discovery and human survival. Having subjected these various categories of rationales to extensive expert analysis, they determined that no one by itself was able to justify and provide an overwhelming rationale for human spaceflight.
The second most shocking point was this: “There exists no widely accepted, robust quantitative methodology to support comparative assessments of the returns to federal R&D programs in different economic sectors and areas of research, it is clear that the NASA human spaceflight program, like other government research and development programs, has stimulated economic activity and has advanced development of new products and technologies that have had or may in the future generate significant economic impacts. It is impossible, however, to develop a reliable comparison of the returns from spaceflight versus other government R&D investments.” (Emphasis added.)
Mind you, this report comes from a broad group of space policy experts that represent some of the best thinking in the country on the future of America in space. Their conclusions are backed by years of collective experience.
What they are saying with these two statements is that there is no business case or value proposition that can be used to justify the expense of space exploration and human spaceflight. In addition, while claims that there have been valuable economic spin-offs from the space program are undoubtedly true, what is also true is that it might well have been possible to achieve similar technology breakthroughs without expensive human spaceflight programs and their high cost. In other words, we could get similar breakthroughs by putting engineers and scientists focused on similar problems without the added expense of sending astronauts into space, which is quite expensive.
This is a contention that has been made by the scientific community many times and goes to the comparison earlier made with the expense of sending astronauts to Mars. For the cost of a few boot prints in space, we could easily send 75-150 robotic missions mounted with an array of the best sensors and scientific tools available at the time. A human mission to Mars is inspirational for sure. It isn’t necessarily the best way to do science or develop technology.
Launching astronauts to the Moon or Mars is always a cost. There is no offsetting revenue. There may well be indirect benefits of science, technology, and new products to the larger economy, but these are not realized by government. They don’t reduce the debt that is incurred by taxpayers and left for future generations to pay.
There is no straight line that can be drawn between spending money on human spaceflight and achieving any form of government tax revenue in return. Therefore the total cost of space exploration cannot be reduced or amortized over time. It is always an expense. Put a person on the Moon and, in economic terms, that is the return you get for the billions in cost you have incurred. (You also get a lot of science out of it, but that does not create a measurable economic return.)
By contrast, invest tens of billions in the NIH and you have the prospect of curing diseases that plague humanity and to which we are all at risk. You can draw a straight line to specific medicines that have saved the lives of people of all incomes and ages. You have met an immediate need that is tangible and that all can appreciate and support. After all, we all know we are going to die and we would all like to push the date back and not succumb to one of the dreaded diseases of our time. Funding the NIH is an easy case to make. We may not necessarily get a direct gain share or direct taxpayer cost recovery out of the vast research establishment the NIH is funding and that the private sector in the form of pharmaceutical firms of all sizes attempts to commercialize. But we do see a net benefit in the drugs that our health insurance provides and we can all support the reason for spending this money. We do get tax income back from pharmaceutical sales and we can often quantify savings to the economy from better health. A payback can be measured even if it takes years to materialize or is indirect.
The space program is different. While we can make the case that the science and engineering expenditures that are made create a return on investment, the truth is there are cheaper ways to fund that same science than sending humans into space. In fact, if we stopped funding human exploration, we could immediately divert many billions to a more focused effort, do more science, more missions using robots, and potentially transfer more technology to the economy, a point the scientific community calls out repeatedly.
This is the core dilemma. Space exploration is expensive and it does not produce anything tangible other than inspiration. It is valuable in that respect, but the case for inspiration versus feeding the hungry, curing a disease, or protecting the American homeland from foreign aggressors – all of which are more immediate, tangible, and compelling – comes up wanting.
Without any tangible, direct payback, space exploration has played a weak hand in the annual budgetary wars.
Reason #4: There’s No Blank Check
The three preceding reasons all flow down to the simple truth that the public is not willing to cut a check for a more expansive and expensive investment in space exploration. It’s too expensive, there are too many competing priorities for scarce resources, and there’s no direct, tangible economic payback. The American public is not willing to spend large sums on space exploration and it hasn’t been from the start.
That may well fly in the face of the conventional wisdom about the Apollo program. In fact, a common lament is that we don’t have the kind of commitment that we used to have during the Apollo days. But this is a shallow argument, a crutch that we have to stop leaning on because public support was never that high in the first place.
The NRC report points out that before the program began, polling in 1961 found only a third of the public was supportive of making the kind of large investment necessary to land a man on the moon, then estimated as the equivalent of $40bn dollars. In 1967, well along the way and only two years from the first Moon landing, only a third of the American public felt Apollo was worth spending $4bn a year for a decade. Yet, another poll found only a third of people thought it was important to land a man on the Moon before the Russians.20
Roger Launius of the Smithsonian has done the most to debunk the myth that public support was overwhelmingly on the side of the Apollo program in the 1960s. His research shows that public support of the idea that Apollo was worth the cost only crossed above 50% at one point in the 1960s – when Apollo 11 landed and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon – and shortly thereafter declined back to an average of just 40% afterwards.21
What this tells us is that with Apollo, America’s politicians overrode American public opinion and sentiment to carry through with the Apollo commitment until the goal was achieved. They did so in the context of the Cold War stand-off with the Soviet Union in which strength could be equated with a threat of conflict and even survival.
Not only was there no overwhelming public support for landing men on the Moon, there was a strong counter-movement that labelled the Moon Landings a ‘Moon-doggle’, a story partly recounted by Alexis Madrigal in her 2012 essay in The Atlantic magazine.
While we look back in retrospective pride at Apollo, we forget that most Americans were opposed or lukewarm at best, some protestors even marched on Cape Canaveral labeling it a costly diversion of funding against the needs of the poor, and the broader scientific community sniped from the sidelines that it was a poor way to do science (an argument the science community is still making today).22
Today, most analysis of polling on where the public stands when it comes to funding space exploration has found a good deal of consistency on two common themes:
- Space exploration is not a big priority if/when compared to other needs, and
- There is not now nor has there been any significant desire on the part of the American public for greater funding of space exploration.
The NRC commission of 2014 found that greater funding for space exploration does not rank very high as a priority for the public today, nor has it for a generation. Over a 40 year span, the percentage of the public that thought we were spending too little on space exploration has varied in the 10-20% range, whereas the percentage of the public that thought were spending too much has been much higher, varying between 30-60%.
The General Social Survey (GSS) conducted in 2012 asked the public to rank 18 spending priorities and whether the government was spending too little or too much. Space exploration fell near the bottom, 16th on the list, beating out only foreign aid and welfare, as the lowest priorities for more funding. Just over 20% of the public was supportive of more spending, whereas over 30% felt we were spending too much in comparison to other priorities. By 2018, the same percentage of the public (21%) felt we were spending too little, but 45% of the public saw the current budget for space exploration as about right and 23% thought it was too much.
The NRC also cites a study by Pew Charitable Trust in 2004 which found that only 10% of the public rated expanding America’s space program as a top priority.23
More recently an IPSOS poll in 2019 found just 20% of those polled felt that NASA’s budget was too little, whereas 27% thought it was too much.24
And a 2018 Pew Research survey found that just 13% of Americans view sending astronauts to the moon as a top priority and just 18% believe sending astronauts to Mars is a top priority for NASA.25
The inescapable conclusions are that space exploration is not a big priority for the vast majority of the American public, the numbers have been broadly the same for many decades, and only a relatively small portion are willing to consider spending more on it. For those that would like to suggest a bigger effort or a faster path to Mars, this brief survey of public sentiment is a bracing reality check.
Reason #5: It’s an Elite Sport
There is one more reason that space exploration fails to drive a larger budget. This one is more subjective and tenuous, but I believe the last reason articulates the previous four in a different way. It is this: Only a very small number of people get to be astronauts when exploration is the governing paradigm of a space program.
With space exploration, you need only a small cadre of highly trained astronauts to run a program, especially when the cadence runs out over decades and the number of missions is very small.
Here’s a data point. A few years ago, more than 18,000 people applied for just 12 open positions as NASA astronauts. Such openings only come every few years. I suspect that if the odds were better and the process were known, NASA could easily get 10x that number of applicants.
Of course NASA works hard to make the small number of astronauts that it does select representative of the larger population, from gender to ethnicity, so that we can identify with them as much as possible. But as long as space exploration remains the goal, there is very little hope that the common citizen will ever directly participate or that we will break out into larger numbers.
New victories, new landings on far away worlds are a good match for a small group of elite astronauts engaged in dangerous and risky activities. We will laud every first and lionize the men and women who dare to go and return. The first time. But as a routine activity, it will become rapidly apparent that a program based on exploration is about the few entertaining the many. Unfortunately, Netflix is cheaper.
If the vast majority of Americans cannot participate, then inspiration only goes so far before the cost-benefit economics, the trade-offs, and the budgetary implications must make their inexorable presence felt.
Building a space program around a tiny elite is a fundamental misread of our public’s aspirations, especially those of our young people. Most young people in America would like to travel into space. A 2019 CBS News poll found that 52% of adults under age 30 say they personally would like to go to the Moon.26 That same year a Pew Research Center poll led with a headline that a majority, 58%, of Americans would NOT be interested in traveling into space. Yet, this result was aggregate number was for all age groups. Dig deeper and you find that 63% of Millennials (born between 1981-1996) would definitely or probably be interested in space tourism and traveling into space.27
As long as exploration remains an elite sport, it cannot satisfy the yearnings of the vast number of young Americans to go into space and whom would back a program that gave many more of them that chance.
Exploration is not sustainable because it fulfills the dream for so few at a time when so many aspire to go. For the lucky, elite few that do get to be astronauts, it remains extraordinarily expensive – the bill for which the rest of us have to foot.
The Soundbite Challenge
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson summaries the challenge of funding space exploration with a simple illustration. In his speeches, he has told his audiences something like this: Imagine we are on our way to Mars and a recession hits. A newscaster goes down to the unemployment line and interviews a man in line. The guy says he’s lost his job, is losing his home, and can’t afford food. The newscaster says, ‘But we’re going to Mars.’
Tyson then shrugs with a pained look and a sigh, leaving his audience with a sense of just how enormous the challenge of funding space exploration truly is from a political perspective.
This anecdote captures neatly and succinctly all of the themes I have articulated. When bad news hits and people are suffering, space exploration looks like a terrible waste of money. Earthly needs will always trump aspirational desires to explore. We will always have an economic cycle with bad times as well as good. And when tough times hit, the budget for exploration will get cut.
The tragic insight of this allegory is that we are well into our second great crisis in a single generation – a global pandemic – that has delivered yet further financial and economic hardship. The problems keep coming at us.
How do you overcome the dilemma of funding for space when there are so many Earthly crises to resolve? The challenge is to find a reason to be in space that can be echoed in a soundbite and whose rationale makes sense even to people who are suffering economic or personal loss for which little or less help may be forthcoming in the near-term because of a priority for a program in space.
We have yet to find that rationale, that soundbite, that program, and that is largely why we have not gone into space at scale.
By the end of this essay, my goal is to meet this challenge and provide you with a succinct set of soundbites that make the case clearly and cleanly for a vastly larger program in space.
Romanticizing the glory days of Apollo is a misread of history. There was no blank check from voters then, there will be none today. We should be proud of that program for what it was, but should not rely on its achievements as a guide to the future.
The historical context of Kennedy’s mission to the moon was utterly and completely unique. The race to the moon was a one-off inexorably bound up in a great power rivalry where the Russians were competing to win the same prize and ahead at every step, giving us sustained attention, a real sense of threat of not winning the race, and perhaps the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination to collectively make the moon drive an iconic mission.
No such perception of threat exists currently. Any program today has to exist within the competitive reality of politics and budgets and what the public is willing to support. We cannot be cavalier with comments about the lack of commitment of our public when we face a range of overwhelming moral and urgent imperatives from the children we don’t feed and educate well enough to the environment we are not saving to the wars and conflicts we must deal with.
Space exploration in this context comes up wanting. It solves none of the major challenges we confront as a body politic or a global civilization. High minded talk of aspiration is overwhelmingly the language of those for whom the basic needs of life are taken care of and who have the time to ponder philosophical questions. It is for the rich, privileged, and prissy to pontificate on. It does not connect with or relate to the day-to-day struggles that most Americans face to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, or get the kids through school. Answering the riddles of the universe and the mysteries of human existence do not help Americans achieve a path to the American Dream at a time when our Middle Class is under enormous pressure and social mobility has fallen to all-time lows.
Advocates for space exploration have proven unwilling to admit these basic facts and have, therefore, been unable to overcome them. The result is that NASA’s budget has hit a wall over which it has not been able to climb and that has limited our ability to get to scale in space. It simply remains too expensive and too risky. And politicians and voters know it.
The enduring questions of America’s future in space are not how far can we go and what can we do when we get there. We cannot go blindly forth without a compelling vision backed by a very strong value proposition.
The true enduring questions are these:
- How do we get to scale in space without a Sputnik moment?
- How do we move humanity onto the high frontier without a significant great power rivalry with which to justify the cost? (Unless China will conveniently land a man on the Moon and lay claim to superior national willpower.)
- How do we deliver a program that is strong enough to win support on both sides of the political aisles in an era that is no less turbulent than any of the other periods in which we have opted not to go forth?
- What does a space program look like in an age of austerity, in the wake of a great financial crisis and the aftermath of a global pandemic, the combination of which has generated massive fiscal, political, and economic challenges?
To these questions, the answers to date have been unsatisfactory, irrevocably demonstrated by the failure to allocate resources and budget not just once, but many times over the past 50 years.
This is the backdrop for judging the failure of Presidential announcements.
There has been no easy answer, no silver bullet, and no compelling strategic rationale to date for any significant move onto the high frontier.
And yet. With all of that said. The game is changing.
That a strategic rationale has not been found before does not mean that one isn’t possible now. Describing what has changed, why it is important, and what it potentially means is the subject of the next chapter.
- Lanier, Jaron, Who Owns the Future?, Simon & Schuster, 2013, p. 366
- Gibney, Bruce, What Happened to the Future?, Founder’s Fund, 2011, http://www.foundersfund.com/the-future/#/introduction
- Pontin, Jason, ‘Why we can’t solve big problems,’ MIT Technology Review, Nov/Dec 2012
- Wolfe, Tom, “One Giant Leap to Nowhere,” The New York Times, July 18, 2009
- DeGrasse Tyson, Neil, Space Chronicals: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, W.W. Norton &I Company, New York, 2012, p. 253
- (http://www.people-press.org/files/legacy-questionnaires/51.pdf) (http://www.people-press.org/1999/10/24/optimism-reigns-technology-plays-key-role/)
- Pew Research, Majority of Americans Believe It Is essential That the U.S. remain a Global Leader in Space, June 6, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2018/06/06/majority-of-americans-believe-it-is-essential-that-the-u-s-remain-a-global-leader-in-space/
- Fowler, Wallace, “Anniversary Shows us that NASA and Space Exploration are Worth Their Costs, July 21, 2014, http://www.utexas.edu/know/2014/07/21/anniversary-shows-us-that-nasa-and-space-exploration-are-worth-their-costs/
- Lafleur, Claude, “Cost of US Piloted Programs“, March 8, 2010, http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1579/1
- NATURE: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v472/n7341/full/472038d.html
- Source: 2.7.5, Pathways to Exploration
- NRC report, page 1-7
- Source: Augustine report, p. 21-22
- ____, The 2020 Long-Term Budget Outlook, Congressional Budget Office, September 21, 2020, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56516
- ___, NRC, 2014, Section 22.214.171.124, page 112
- Launius, Roger D., “Public opinion polls and perceptions of US human spaceflight,” Space Policy 19, 2003, Elsevier, p. 166-168 http://www.academia.edu/179045/_Public_Opinion_Polls_and_Perceptions_of_US_Human_Spaceflight_
- Madrigal, Alexis, “Moondoggle: The Forgotten Opposition to the Apollo Program,” The Atlantic, September 12, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/09/moondoggle-the-forgotten-opposition-to-the-apollo-program/262254/
- ___, NRC, 2014, Section 3.1.2, pages 110-111
- ___, IPSOS, https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2019-07/cspan-space-program-topline-2019-07-10.pdf
- ____, “Majority of Americans Believe It Is Essential That the U.S. Remain a Global Leader in Space,” June 6, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2018/06/06/majority-of-americans-believe-it-is-essential-that-the-u-s-remain-a-global-leader-in-space/ )
- Backus, Fred, “Moon landing is still a source of pride – CBS News poll”, July 15, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/moon-landing-is-still-a-source-of-pride-cbs-news-poll/
- Strauss, Mark and Kennedy, Brian, “Space tourism? Majority of Americans say they wouldn’t be interested,” Pew Research Center, June 7, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/06/07/space-tourism-majority-of-americans-say-they-wouldnt-be-interested/ )