Sunday night, NASA’s Curiosity rover completed a ridiculously complicated landing sequence to safely grace the surface of Mars, where it is now beaming back exciting images and other data. I feel like this is a good time to thank our federal government for one of its few entities that I really enjoy – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
I want to start out by admitting that I just really like space exploration, whether the funding is coming from the government or private investors and customers. Space is so huge, and we’ve been coming up with better ways to look at it since Galileo, but we’ve only actually been sending stuff into it for a few decades! I think it’s really cool when we learn more about what’s out there; I was excited as a young boy when Pathfinder hit Mars in 1997, and I was just as excited as a young man when Curiosity landed last weekend. So I’m a little biased for NASA.
There are plenty of popular arguments that NASA’s work is a public good, from all the trickle-down technologies to the inspiration NASA brings to the next generation of scientists and engineers. There are plenty of counterarguments that NASA’s role in various technologies is exaggerated or that we would have discovered those things eventually and maybe even cheaper, too, but it’s impossible to know one way or the other. At the very least it seems pretty clear to me that NASA helped realize a lot of technologies much sooner than we would have had otherwise.
But I also take a simpler view. Planet Earth has limited resources. All of our economic discussions involve the allocation of these scarce resources. Space is virtually infinite, and has potentially unlimited resources. The more we explore it and learn about it, the more we can try to use it to bring us things we need more of on Earth. (Like minerals and energy. We can’t feed a growing population? What if we learn how to grow food in space? We finally run out of oil? What if we can set up millions of miles of solar panels in space? Etc. Etc.) The more we explore it and learn about it, the more we can try to use it to get rid of things we want less of on Earth (Like pollution and trash. What if carbon dioxide really is killing our planet? What if we figure out a way to launch a bunch of it out of our solar system? Etc. Etc. ) There is unimaginable potential for outer space to improve our standard of living right here on Earth, and you don’t even have to care about colonizing other planets or looking for aliens to be excited about this.
Everything NASA learns about outer space brings us closer to the enormous potential of outer space. Already Curiosity’s trip has taught us more about the radiation from solar flares that future astronauts can expect to face. As we go forward I fully expect the private sector to go faster and farther than NASA ever will, but they are launching from NASA’s tall shoulders. I almost expect Elon Musk to beat NASA to the first Mars manned mission, but he will be taking advantage of all the information already gathered by NASA’s orbiters and rovers over the last couple of decades.
Besides discovering lots of cool things, NASA doesn’t come with some of the downsides that plague a lot of government agencies. NASA doesn’t come up with new ways to invade your privacy or new regulations that inhibit businesses and consumers. And while a lot of government work is inefficient and incompetent, Curiosity’s complex landing sequence unfolded perfectly. Sure, the rover came in over budget, like many government and business projects, and NASA has had notable failures as well, but this was an impressive example of NASA being innovative and successfully sending cool stuff into space to do cool things.
Now outer space is infinite, or infinite enough that we could expend our entire GDP exploring it if we wanted. Even if NASA’s discoveries are a public good, that doesn’t justify unlimited spending or imply that the current levels aren’t too high when we consider the opportunity cost of other priorities and our overall budget’s woefully overextended state. In fact I don’t think I would support increasing NASA’s budget ceteris paribus, (though I would be happy to, say, replace the TSA with more NASA dollars). But regardless of what NASA does or should do in the future, I’m glad they’ve advanced far enough that the maturing private sector can pick up from here and go even farther.
Maybe SpaceX will get people to Mars before NASA does. Maybe SpaceX will get people to Mars cheaper than NASA does. But until that day comes, I’m going to eat up every image and video clip Curiosity sends back to Earth. So thank you, government, for NASA.
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