OpEd: Is Ignorance Bliss?

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  Space News Business

OpEd: Is Ignorance Bliss?

By JAMES LEWIS

posted: 14 April 2008
01:29 pm ET





W
e often hear that the average voter is ignorant of the true value of space, and if they only knew, the dollars would flood in. Putting aside the first explanation for this that comes to mind – ignorance is bliss, so why give it up? – we need to ask if the voters’ assessment of the value of space is incorrect. The space community believes that the contribution is undervalued. A range of arguments have been developed to demonstrate the real benefits of space. Unfortunately, many of these arguments are dubious, threadbare or resonate only with the space community.

 

We say that space contributes to innovation, but many in the innovation community wonder if the United States wouldn’t get a greater return if it took dollars from space and spent them on terrestrial projects. At a recent NASA assembly of think-tankers, one of Washington’s leading innovation pundits turned to me and said: “The money would be better spent on the ground.” The numbers, if you did a cold calculation of the rate of return, are probably on his side.

 

The value of space commerce is another reason proffered to spend more on space. Space commerce falls into two categories: services where there is market demand (like telecommunications) and services that nobody wants (like manufacturing in space). It is fair to argue that without the initial government investment, valuable commercial space services (telecom, GPS, remote sensing) would not have gotten off the ground. But the unspoken question is whether space has become a mature industry, like railroads, where all the good applications – ones the market will sustain – have been found and utilized.

 

One way to think about space commerce is to consider that the fast food industry in the United States produces more value for the economy – an estimated $156 billion from hamburgers and pizza, compared to an estimated $110 billion from space. This figure does not count spending by the Defense Department or NASA, just as the fast food figure does not count all restaurant revenue. The overall revenue from space, including spending on military space is probably closer to $200 billion. Fast food lacks the cachet of space, but from a commercial perspective, it is more important. In any case, $110 billion adds up to a little less than 1 percent of the gross domestic product.

 

There are some things, of course, where space services have a real cost advantage over similar terrestrial applications – GPS for both navigation and timing signals, for example, but it is easy to underestimate the ability of terrestrial competitors to come up with viable substitutes for many space services.

 

Sometimes we talk about the spirit of exploration and how human nature is to go ever outward, and space is the next step, the next frontier. This, unfortunately, is almost completely wrong. The major explorations were motivated by a search for gold and land, and a desire to beat out competing empires. The lure of gold prompted countries to develop the technologies needed for long voyages to new sources of wealth. Even when people crossed the Aleutian straits thousands of years ago, it was the lure of better hunting that drew them.

 

Space is important for science, but support for science is not always a winning argument in the United States. From the dawn of the republic until World War II, less than 1 percent of the federal budget went to support research. For a period of 50 years or so after World War II, the U.S. spent more of its income on research, but this was prompted by military confrontation. For the last two decades, spending on the physical sciences, including aerospace, has been flat. Perhaps this will change, but to date it has not.

 

It is also hard to make the case for spending on space to buttress science in a political environment where some elected officials give science short shrift. Since the 1990s, congressional desires to shrink the federal government were buttressed by attacks on basic scientific tenets for physics and biology. In this climate, arguing that space spending benefits science may not have carried much weight.

 

A perception of mismanagement works against more funding. It is unfair perhaps to apply this to civil space, but Congress may feel that it has provided billions in recent years and does not have much to show for it. Boring missions are a drawback. For years we have said that low Earth orbit was interesting. The public did not agree.

 

This is not to say there is no public interest in space – the Spirit and Opportunity Mars exploration rovers, for example, have a fan base. Perhaps this provides an idea of how to rekindle support. Instead of refutable arguments or references to some mythical exploratory spirit, calls for more funding for space could build on the appeal of interesting work. Space exploration changed how people think about the planet. Ideas like global ecosystem and the environment emerged after the manned flights, and the stunning, never-before seen images of the planet helped contribute to this. Spaceflight changed people’s conception of the Earth and humanity’s relationship to it, and brought a new sense of fragility and interdependence. Even if Americans are not aware of it, they think differently because of space. There is a power in this argument that the space community has not fully exploited.

 

One temptation would be to appeal to security. The Soviet threat was an immense incentive for funding space. We could, with some hocus-pocus, cast China in this role, but it would not really be true. China is not the Soviet Union, not engaged in a global competition with the United States nor is it seeking to install Marxist police states around the world. Trying to scare Congress into spending more on space because of China’s military threat would be just another exaggeration. In any case, the result might be more funding for military space, not for civil programs.

 

This does not mean that there is no competition in space. The new competition is for technological leadership and for influence, but it is not an arms race accompanied by the threat of nuclear annihilation. In this new competition, the principle motive for investing in space is what we could call “raison d’etat,” investments to advance state power. Once, the space shuttle and the international space station made a strong contribution to this kind of power. They were symbols of technological prowess. For whatever reason – age, familiarity, fewer flights – this no longer seems to be the case. Their value as a tool of state power has declined.

 

This is not to say, however, that the value of space as a tool of state power also has declined. Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood why space was important, and so did President John F. Kennedy. It may not be impossible to convince the current generation of leaders that a reinvigorated space program is important for American power in the world if they can be persuaded that they will see tangible returns of their spending.

 

If there is ignorance of the true value of space, perhaps it is because we have taken the wrong approach to ending it. Refutable statements on innovation, commerce or exploration do not justify spending more on space. A new set of arguments to increase funding space would require people to think about power and knowledge. No one can question space’s contribution here.

 

James Lewis is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington.