Selling the Space Program

The following was originally written for my old tumblr space blog. I think it covers some ground that is still very relevant as I am adding it to this website (June 3, 2020). I think it's still surprisingly true to my current thinking, but I do think there are parts that could be strengthened or expanded on. While I could use this as the base for a newer article, I decided to leave it is as a signpost to see where my thinking has changed.

Organizing a few thoughts about selling the space program to the general public that I’ve had kicking around in my head for the past few days…

The Problem: NASA, policy advocates like Penny4NASA, and space enthusiasts do a bad job at selling the concept of a space program to people. Sure, at times they’re great at capturing the public’s attention, just look at NASA’s Seven Minutes of Terror video or the simple, soundbite-sized goals of Penny4NASA. But while they’re great at telling us what we can do, they fall short at explaining why those things should matter to the general public.

The reasons to support the space program are generally vague, feel-good reasons. There’s the Solar System completionists: “We should go because it’s there!”; there’s the Saganists: “Any attempts to increase our understanding of our universe are good!”; there’s the technologists: “We do it because the spin-offs from our technology better society!”; there’s the doomsayers “going to space is the only hope for the future of humanity!” Almost every justification given is some variation or combination of these. The problem is that none of these are really a good reason for us to go to space right now.

The garden-variety internet space nerd usually considers these reasons ends in themselves, and a startling amount show utter contempt at anybody that doesn’t agree these reasons are persuasive. Not to say that everyone who supports spaceflight is like this, but it’s surprisingly common.

For those of you who might be shaking your head and saying that I just don’t get it, consider this:

Why should John and Jane Q Public care about the historic achievement of leaving footprints on Mars, when they’re working two or three jobs to make ends meet?

Why should they care about bettering their knowledge of the universe when they’re struggling to pay off their own educational debts?

Why should they care about vague developments in material sciences when those developments are a decade or more away and they need to keep up with the maintenance on the vehicle they need to get to work tomorrow?

Why should they take the long view on humanity’s survival when they and their childrens’ lives are cut short in the streets by law enforcement with startling regularity?

Why should they care at all about increasing the amount of money available for spaceflight when money for the societal safety net is quickly being reduced?

Modern policy advocates crib their reasons, directly or indirectly, from the famous 1970 “Why Explore Space” letter. It was written by Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then associate director of science at Marshall Space Flight Center, to a nun asking why we should continue to invest in the space program instead of projects that more directly benefit society. Here’s the key passage (bolding mine):

Higher food production through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on Earth. I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development, and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-travelling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering. The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new material and methods, to invent better technical systems, to manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments, and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for application to Earth-bound technologies. Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our Earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools for everyday life. Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-travelling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients. The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.

Here’s the gist of my argument: much of the reasoning that Dr. Stuhlinger used is no longer as valid as it once was. Yes, technological development spurred by Apollo had a huge impact on society: GPS is now an integral tool in farm management, fatalities from severe weather have been significantly reduced thanks to weather satellites, and information technologies mean we’re able to better allocate resources in a disaster.

However, diminishing returns have now kicked in. Due to the unique challenges posed by the space environment, the aerospace-derived equipment we use here on Earth now far surpasses much of what we use in space. Looking at the past few years of NASA Spinoff, it’s hard to find the world-changing inventions that investment in NASA helped to create. Much of it is useless gadgets or luxury goods for the middle and upper classes. When “connecting sports teams to fans through gigapixel technology” becomes a spotlight spinoff technology, I get the feeling that the best bang for the buck is behind us.

Further, spaceflight doesn’t have the sole claim to being “high challenge with a strong motivation for innovative work.” You can apply this statement to many other realms of research, like the Brain Initiative, which could conceivably have a more direct impact on society in the future than spaceflight ever could. I can think of several high challenges (improving the nation’s infrastructure, reviving impoverished communities, reforming education, raising the standard of healthcare) that would impact society in much stronger and beneficial ways than the modern space program.

The way things are currently organized, the modern space program strikes me as a prestige project that doubles as a handout to the middle and upper classes - the owners of aerospace companies, the engineers that design the rockets, the scientists that reduce the data - and a bid to subsidize an unstable military-industrial complex. If you follow the money, it ends up disproportionately in the hands of the already well to do.

The Challenge: If getting the support of a disinterested, cash-strapped public is necessary to maintain or expand our endeavors in space, what is a better way to convince them that their investment is worthwhile? Perhaps I can afford to dream of space, but how do I explain to someone who can’t?

In terms of policy: how do we focus the space program to better benefit society as a whole?

Originally written: October 14, 2014