Why do we spend money on NASA and space exploration?

I just read about the 450 million dollar Mercury satellite. I also read a bit about the tens of billions of dollars that go/went into the shuttle program. Why are we doing this? I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find space exploration fascinating, as most people do, but is it really a justifiable expense with our current levels of (expensive) technology?

Is there really ANY excuse to spend money/resources on space exploration today, as a society, when we are still suffering from poverty, hunger, cancer, AIDS, and a lack of education in many countries, etc? Wouldn’t all this money be better spent on more pressing issues? Is this really the right time in our history for the government to be using our taxpayer dollars on welfare/subsidies for the aerospace industry?

To be completely honest, I already know what some people will say in response to this - in the past I’ve spent several years of my life focusing on “pure science” research. It’s just that all the reasons I was given as to why it’s okay and good… well, I’ve thought some more about it, and it just doesn’t seem good enough. I really, truly, can’t find any justification for spending so much money on something that offers no tangible returns at any point in the near or even slightly distant future.

Sure, we should invest in the future in general, but don’t people think we should invest in the present first (ie fixing poverty, hunger, cancer, AIDS, education, etc)? Isn’t this the same as putting all your money into volatile investments, while at the same time failing to buy food and paying your rent?

I’d love to hear what people have to say about this.

Well, if you want the truly cold answer, it’s because all those people with “poverty, hunger, cancer, AIDS, and a lack of education” are going to die anyway, and no realistic amount of money is going to really help their situation in the aggregate.

Space exploration however, can pay dividends through technology research, direct space applications (communication satellites, weather satellites, etc…) and finally through the general increase in science interest engendered by the space programs.

Fixing hunger, poverty, disease, etc will never be complete, and can potentially consume (perhaps wastefully) any amount of resources dedicated to it. In reality, your proposal is not in fact that we:

  • it’s that we stop doing other (perhaps more frivolous) things forever.

That’s why we do spend money on it - because nobody wants to wait forever until we can start.

Wouldn’t it be more efficient to DIRECTLY fund research that benefits society, as opposed to INDIRECTLY funding research by sending little robots into outer space - and wasting billions of dollars in the process?

Exactly. It’s a false dilemma as well; you can spend money on space and the poor; only on the poor; only on space; or neither. Cutting funding for space exploration doesn’t mean that a penny more will be spent on alleviating poverty or curing AIDS or whatever.

Really? Do you happen to know offhand what the HIV survival rate was in 1985 compared to today? Do you think it was the money we invested in the space program that brought about that change?

Saying that launching satellites to Mercury results in a substantial benefits to society, but investing money in cancer research doesn’t, certainly ranks among the dumbest arguments I’ve ever seen in this forum.

I think space is important. I really do. I would never advocate stopping the space program, but to argue that we need to continue to invest in space exploration at the same rate as we did before the economic catastrophe just doesn’t hold water. Let’s face it: NASA, in general, is a “very nice to have,” not a “must have.”

I agree with this, but it’s a subtly different point to the argument presented by the OP. Agreed: In hard times, luxuries should suffer more stringent cuts than bare necessities.

But I think the OP wants us to fully fix all the other problems first, before any justification can be made to spend out on ‘nice to have’. That’s just unrealistic and depressing, IMO - I don’t mind working towards the lofty goal of the betterment of humanity, but I do expect a little playtime too.

This page lists some of the benefits of space exploration.

Honestly, I am not sure.

The fact is that investing in space exploration gets both those practical benefits to society AND the more long term benefits of addressing the more fundamental scientific questions and possibly the future spread of humanity to other worlds. To some degree that is a two-fer investment that “direct” investments do not achieve. Space research exploration created space based systems that allow us to predict weather, understand agriculture better, and run communication systems that benefit everyone. “Direct” research would very likely not have led to those things.

That said the pay-out for space exploration and for that matter most basic science research is long term and, by its very nature, unknown in specifics and magnitude. How much of what is currently spent is being “wasted”? That will be a very hard question to answer in any definitive way, but I would wager very little.

I’m totally okay with this, and I understand what this means.

Problem is, I just can’t help but ask myself if we could have discovered/created these things for a fraction of the cost if we just paid scientists and engineers to come up with this stuff DIRECTLY? Sending people to the moon, and spacecraft to distant planets, is an awfully roundabout way to create/improve scratch-resistant lenses, solar panels, engine lubricants, etc. You could have spent a tiny fraction of the cost, and researched those things directly.
As for the other comments on whether we should have space exploration AT ALL. Well, I think some of it is perfectly valid. We do need satellite technology for our communication/spying needs. So some investment is good, even financially viable with decent returns. But whenever I hear about sending humans to Mars, I cringe more than a little at the cost.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff we expend resources on as humans, that doesn’t directly benefit humanity. for example: do we really need our clothes to be coloured? Surely it would be cheaper to produce them whatever colour the materials naturally dictate - then we could spend that extra money on healing the sick?

I think the answer to this question is ‘no’ - because choosing to forgo any specific thing or set of things does not necessarily mean there is any resource to divert elsewhere.

Also don’t forget the appeal of astronomy and space programmes to the young. Many forms of science don’t have the “gosh wow!” factor to capture the imagination of children to the same extent as Hubble images or the like.

But we need kids to be interested in science to help solve all these other problems. Because it’s more than likely that they’ll still be working on the same problems when we’re all dead.

Because scientific research always pays off big time. The trick is, you never know beforehand what kind of research will give the most promising applications (though some educated guesses can be made), so you have to spend money on some projects that may not lead to practical results. But, even if 99% of the money spent on research is “wasted” on non-usable results, the rest of 1% will lead to extremely profitable discoveries, which will push society forward.

As for the space exploration in general, the most obvious advantage is that it will allow us to put our eggs in at least one more basket. Asteroid impact, supervolcano, climate change, world-wide epidemic… there are a lot of things capable of wiping up mankind. So, the logical thing to do is to make sure that humans will be able to live in space, independently from Earth resources. Yeah, that’s a long term project and probably no visible improvements will result from it during my life time, but I hope we (as a species) are not so nearsighted. After all, the dinosaurs disappeared because they lacked a space program. :wink:

Sports stadium would be a better focus, IMHO, for outrage about public financing. (I’m not particularly upset about such stadiums, just introduce it as one example to counter outrage against NASA.)

I had trouble Googling for total public money spent on sports stadiums, but found one article stating that $7.4 billion of public money was spent just on NFL stadiums over a 13-year period. Several articles mention that taxpayers get very little benefit from these stadiums.

The People Now In Charge of Congress™ have directed their money-savings effort at $50 million paid to NPR, a decision so wrong-minded the most charitable assumption is that they conflated million with billion.

For many of those advances, the point is that we would never have imagined they were possible otherwise. Inventing something to meet a specific existing need is much, much easier than inventing things to meet a need you just kind of made up.

We don’t need to make up problems to solve, we have plenty already.

This sounds like marketing spin. “You don’t know you need this thing that we haven’t discovered yet, but once we accidentally discover it, you won’t be able to get along without it! So give us your money now!”

I’d argue that we DO know what most of our problems are, and the most EFFICIENT way of solving them is to do so directly. As Ravenman suggested, sending people to the moon on the off chance that we might find an accidental cure for cancer along the way seems a little silly when we have cancer research labs right here right now that need more funding.

The point isn’t that space exploration might help us find a cure for cancer. It’s that it might help us come up with lots of other useful things.

And that marketing spin is true, to a point. We didn’t need the internet, but I think we can all agree that the world is a far better place with it.

Have you considered the political factor? In one hand, NASA shoud be regarded as a product or a competitive tool against CCCP during the Cold War. Now, the gov doesn’t need to do so and also reduce the expenses. In the other hand, the advantage is not only about sience, but military and market.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and propose that the internet would have been invented anyways, one way or another, in time. And I don’t mean by the year 2200 either.

We give too much credit to Newton and Einstein for their discoveries in physics, for example. If they hadn’t discovered what they did at the time, someone would have come up with it 10 or 20 years later.

I know this might be a difficult point to argue, so I’ll merely leave it as a personal opinion.

I’d say that this is not always true. Quite often solutions to specific problems come from unexpected directions. Cases in point: Herr Roentgen was NOT trying to find a way of examining broken bones when he discovered X-rays. The Curies were NOT trying to find alternative sources of energy when they were researching radioactive elements. Ben Franklin was NOT trying to invent a new light-producing device to replace candles when playing with a kite.