NASA recently released its second annual Economic Impact Report, showing how much money the space agency is returning to the US economy. The three main takeaways are that NASA generates $71.2 billion in total economic output, sustains 339,600 jobs nationwide, and generates nearly $7.7 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue. The economic advantage created by NASA is spread across all 50 states. Considering NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget was $23.3 billion, the space agency appears to have a significant return on investment.
However, as impressive as these numbers are, do they represent the true value of NASA’s share of the federal budget? That’s only the case if you look at the space agency as a jobs program, something that may impress members of Congress but probably doesn’t excite the rest of us.
The number of jobs generated by NASA is a poor metric for determining the value of the space agency. The extremely expensive and extremely overdue space launch system is certainly creating a lot of NASA jobs in major states and congressional districts. But cost overruns and slippages interfere with the main goal of the Artemis program, which is to get astronauts back to the Moon and, eventually, Mars and beyond.
The report also presents the old but good NASA rationale for the technology spinoffs. It focuses on indoor vertical gardens, a technology developed by the space agency for astronauts to grow their own food on space stations, moon bases and long-duration interplanetary travel. Indoor farms make it possible to grow vegetables in urban centers, using less water, in a temperature and light controlled environment 24/7.
However, are there any justifications for having a well-funded NASA spending money to explore space that only the space agency can? It turns out that such justifications exist.
NASA is above all a scientific 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 the space agency’s activities, such as the study of lunar and Martian geology and the return of these spectacular images from the Hubble and James Webb space telescopes, are difficult to put into balance. Knowledge has its own inherent value and is worth spending money to pursue.
NASA’s recent test to deflect the trajectory of an asteroid is an example of science that directly benefits the world. The DART mission and a new telescope to detect asteroids approaching Earth could save humanity from suffering the fate of the dinosaurs.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a recent op-ed discussed one of the space agency’s business advantages. The Commercial Crew program has made SpaceX not just a supplier of astronauts and cargo to and from the ISS, but a spaceline that takes private customers to and from low Earth orbit. Private space travel is one of the fastest growing industries in the world thanks to NASA investments. NASA’s commercial partnerships will continue as 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 fuel space industries later in the 21st century. A space-based industrial economy will take decades to develop, but it will generate many trillions of dollars in wealth.
The Apollo moon landings were one of America’s greatest Cold War victories. One could say that winning the race to the moon was decisive in bringing down the Soviet Union because it scared the Kremlin about America’s technological prowess.
The Artemis program is as important an instrument for American political soft 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 in expanding the global economic sphere to the moon, Mars, and beyond is to create a prosperous and peaceful world. That the effort prevents a Chinese space hegemony is a happy side effect.
The argument that NASA creates jobs and technological spinoffs is enough to convince members of Congress to increase appropriations for space exploration, research and development. But NASA’s true economic value is the long-term increase in knowledge, prosperity, and peace for the human race.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration studies “Why is it so difficult to return 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.
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