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Is NASA a Waste of Money?

Dec. 13, 2016
Between 2005 and 2011, the U.S. could have funded one-third of NASA’s budget with unused gift cards.

We spend a lot of money on NASA, but many say we don’t have the money for space exploration. Should we be spending money on space exploration when we have a crumbling infrastructure, banks too big to fail, and the need for more jobs?

While there is no such thing as a dumb question, there are a lot of inquisitive idiots. I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson answered these questions best when he said, “It is not that we can’t afford it, it’s that we have chosen to not afford it...The U.S. bailout of the banks exceeded the 50-year budget of NASA...the NASA budget is four-tenths of one penny on a tax dollar.” Since 1958, when NASA started, it received less than 1% of the total U.S. Federal tax budget. Recently, that funding has dropped closer to 0.5%.  

Although this sounds like a small amount, NASA’s recent budget is around $18 billion. Sure, one could say that money invested in other places might generate jobs or save our infrastructure. But I have yet to hear of an industry that you can throw money at and magically generate sustainable good jobs. Think of the jobs generated by NASA, however, and the boost in STEM we have because of the program. On top of employing tens of thousands of employees and contractors, NASA is responsible for all of the jobs created through its research and development. NASA is responsible for inventing many new types of sensors and other electronics. The solar-panel industry alone employs over 209,000 people in the U.S., according to CNN Money.

When NASA innovates, we win. Shoe insoles, scratch-resistant glasses, smartphone cameras, water filtration, and your computer mouse are just a small sampling of technologies developed by NASA and licensed out for commercialization. (Click image to enlarge)

“Solar workers have outnumbered coal workers in the U.S. for some time, but now their ranks have swollen to surpass even the oil and gas industry,” notes Joshua Pearce, associate professor of material science and engineering at Michigan Technology. NASA also invented the battery technology that allows for cordless vacuums and other tools, baby food, freeze-dried technology, artificial limbs, powdered lubricants, and hook and loop fasteners (Velcro). That list doesn’t include the inventions indirectly generated around NASA, such as the Super Soaker (invented by a NASA scientist). Since 1976, NASA has recorded nearly 1,800 different spinoffs and even launched Startup NASA—a technology transfer program to help startups raise capital and secure intellectual property rights. If you want jobs, you want space exploration.

As far as investing in NASA, the government has received $7 to $14 dollars for every dollar spent. Yet many wonder if space is worth the investment because it isn’t money spent bettering Earth. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The Space Act of 1958 requires all research and technological innovation to benefit everyone, not just astronauts. NASA has done nothing but generate a flow of jobs and inventions that make our world a better place.

If we say we can’t budget enough for science or space exploration despite its incredible ROI, I have two words for you: gift cards. Right now, people are buying gift cards for the holidays in abundance. Between 2005 and 2011, however, $41 billion in gift cards went unused, according to NPR. This represents about one third of NASA’s budget during this period. Now, some of this is due to fees, which were curbed in 2009. However, between 2013 and 2014, $1.75 billion in gift cards went unused. NASA’s budget was about $17 billion at this time, so this would have barely made a dent. However, the ROI of putting that money into NASA instead could have meant more jobs and about $12 to $24 billion in revenue. Gift cards, a $127-billion industry in 2015, is expected to hit $160 billion in 2018. I wonder if gift cards or a donation to NASA would make the season and world merrier. 

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