NASA recently released its second annual economic impact report, laying out how much money the space agency returns to the American economy. The three chief takeaways are that NASA generates $71.2 billion in total economic output, maintains 339,600 jobs across the nation and generates close to $7.7 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues. The economic benefit created by NASA is spread out over all 50 states. Considering that NASA’s fiscal 2021 budget was $23.3 billion, the space agency seems to have a hefty return on investment.
However, as impressive as these figures are, do they represent the true value of the part of the federal budget that NASA spends? That is only the case if one thinks of the space agency as a jobs program, something that may impress members of Congress but likely doesn’t excite the rest of us.
The number of jobs NASA generates is a bad metric for determining the space agency’s value. The uber-expensive, wildly behind-schedule Space Launch System certainly creates lots of NASA jobs in important states and congressional districts. But the cost overruns and schedule slippages interfere with the Artemis program’s main goal, which is to get astronauts back to the moon and, eventually on to Mars and beyond.
The report also trots out the oldy but goody justification for NASA of technological spinoffs. 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-duration interplanetary voyages. Indoor farms allow for growing vegetables in urban centers, using less water, in a temperature and light-controlled environment 24/7.
However, do justifications exist to have a well-funded NASA that spends money on exploring space that only the space agency can do? As it turns out, there are such justifications.
NASA is first and foremost a science agency. It conducts experiments on the International Space Station (ISS), ranging from biomedical research to 3D printing, which can have a direct benefit to the economy. But some of what the space agency does, such as studying lunar and Martian geology and returning those spectacular images from the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes, are difficult to put on a balance sheet. Knowledge has its own inherent value and is worth spending some money pursuing.
The recent test NASA conducted to divert the path of an asteroid is one example of science that has a direct benefit to the world. The DART mission and a new telescope to detect Earth-approaching asteroids could save humankind from suffering the fate of the dinosaurs.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, in a recent op-ed, touched on one of the space agency’s commercial benefits. The Commercial Crew program has made SpaceX into not just a purveyor of astronauts and cargo to and from the ISS, but a space line that is taking private customers to and from low Earth orbit. Private space travel is one of the fastest growing industries in the world resulting from NASA investments. NASA’s commercial partnerships will continue when it lands on the moon with privately built and operated rockets such as the SpaceX Starship.
The Artemis program will also lead to lunar and asteroid mining that will feed space-based industries later in the 21st century. A space industrial economy will be decades in the making, but it will generate many trillions of dollars in wealth.
The Apollo moon landings constituted one of the greatest victories the United States achieved in the Cold War. One could argue that winning the race to the moon was decisive in bringing down the Soviet Union because it spooked the Kremlin about American technological prowess.
The Artemis program is as great an instrument 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 space beyond low-Earth orbit. The potential benefits of the Artemis Alliance to extend the world’s economic sphere to the moon, Mars and beyond consists of creating a prosperous, peaceful world. That the effort would prevent a Chinese space hegemony is a happy side effect.
The argument that NASA creates jobs and technological spinoffs suffices to convince members of Congress to increase appropriations for space exploration, research and development. But the real economic value of NASA is the long-term increase of knowledge, prosperity and peace for the human race.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.