NASA recently released its second annual Economic Impact Report, detailing how much money the space agency is returning to the American economy. The top three findings are that NASA generates $71.2 billion in total economic output, supports 339,600 jobs across the country, and generates nearly $7.7 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenues. The economic benefits created by NASA are distributed across all 50 states. Considering that NASA’s fiscal 2021 budget was $23.3 billion, the space agency appears to have a strong return on investment.
But as impressive as these numbers are, do they represent the true value of the portion of the federal budget that NASA spends? That’s only the case if you think of the space agency as an employment program, something that may impress congressmen but is unlikely to excite the rest of us.
The number of jobs created by NASA is a poor measure of the space agency’s worth. The overpriced, way behind schedule Space Launch System is sure to create many NASA jobs in key states and congressional districts. But the cost overruns and postponements are disrupting the Artemis program’s primary goal of getting astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars and beyond.
The report also lists NASA’s old but good justification for technology spin-offs. It focuses on indoor vertical gardens, a technology developed by the Space Agency for astronauts to grow their own food on space stations, lunar bases and long interplanetary voyages. Indoor farms allow vegetables to be grown in urban centers using less water in a 24/7 temperature and light controlled environment.
However, are there reasons to have a well-funded NASA spending money on space exploration that only the space agency can do? As it turns out, there are such justifications.
NASA is primarily a science agency. It conducts experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) ranging from biomedical research to 3D printing that can directly benefit the economy. But some of what the space agency does, like studying the geology of the Moon and Mars and sending back those spectacular images from the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes, is hard to account for. Knowledge has its own inherent value and is worth spending some money on.
NASA’s recent test to redirect an asteroid’s orbit is an example of science that has direct world benefits. The DART mission and a new telescope to detect near-Earth asteroids could save humanity from suffering the fate of dinosaurs.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addressed one of the space agency’s commercial advantages in a recent comment. The Commercial Crew program has transformed SpaceX into not just a supplier of astronauts and cargo to and from the ISS, but a space line that brings commercial customers in and out of low Earth orbit. Private space is one of the fastest growing industries in the world due to NASA investments. NASA’s commercial partnerships continue as it lands on the moon with privately built and operated rockets like the SpaceX spacecraft.
The Artemis program will also lead to lunar and asteroid mining that will feed space-based industries later in the 21st century. An industrial space economy will take decades, but will generate many trillions of dollars in wealth.
The Apollo moon landing was one of the greatest victories of the United States in the Cold War. One could argue that winning the race to the moon was crucial in overthrowing the Soviet Union because it frightened the Kremlin about American technological prowess.
The Artemis program is as great a tool for American soft political power as the Apollo program was. The difference is that NASA has reached out to America’s allies to form a coalition to explore beyond low-Earth orbit. The potential benefit of the Artemis Alliance in expanding global economic space to the Moon, Mars and beyond is the creation of a prosperous, peaceful world. The fact that the effort would prevent Chinese space hegemony is a welcome side effect.
The argument that NASA creates jobs and technological offshoots is enough to persuade members of Congress to increase funding for space exploration, research and development. But NASA’s real economic value is the long-term increase in knowledge, prosperity and peace for mankind.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration studies Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?, The Moon, Mars and Beyond, and Why is America Going Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.