As the Shuttle Mission Ends, Analyzing the Cost of Exploration

Private industry has little reason to invest in endeavors where the result is not returns, but greater scientific knowledge or understanding


Sometime Friday, or in the next few days, weather and mechanics permitting, the very last Space Shuttle mission will depart the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. For some, this marks a great loss in our national vision, capability and space endeavors. To my mind (and I've written six books on NASA history, so I have at least a bit of background on the subject), the ending of the Shuttle program is merely an ending of a chapter -- and a less-than-overwhelmingly productive chapter, at that.

In an article on the closing down of the Shuttle program in Tuesday's Science Times, space writer Dennis Overbye called the Shuttle "the space truck to nowhere." Fun for the astronauts involved, somehow cool to think humans were still leaving the planet but ... with the notable exceptions of servicing the Hubble Space Telescope and a couple of other satellites ... an era rather devoid of any astounding expansions in science, understanding or capability." It's why commercial companies may well be able to take over the bulk of the relatively simple (relative being the operative word, there) low Earth orbit experiences and supply missions.

Leaving the planet is still a vastly difficult and risk-laden operation -- note the difficulty that the commercial space companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (who are developing commercial space vehicles and launch systems) have had developing successful rockets and launching them on schedule. But enabling humans to see the Earth from space and taking supplies to low Earth orbit are not cutting-edge exploratory missions. They're an engineering challenge, to be sure, but NASA has already greatly reduced the risks involved through its 30 years of testing, improving and flying the Shuttles. That's what NASA is supposed to do. Go somewhere first, and in cases where technology might hold promise for commercial development, reduce the risk of the technologies involved enough so that private industry can, in good stockholder conscience, take on the risk of developing commercial applications of that technology.

But what of the greater human mission of exploration? Of boldly going where no one has gone before? Of taking great risks to discover great new worlds, or capabilities or understanding? The sobering fact is that actually may be at risk -- but not because of the ending of the Shuttle program.

Along with the ending of the Shuttle program, this week also marked the one millionth observation by the Hubble Space Telescope. Over the past 20 years, the Hubble, as it's affectionately known, has opened the eyes of scientists and schoolchildren alike to just how vast, mysterious and glorious the universe really is. It's shown us, in various wavelengths, the composition of stars, exoplanets and patches of the cosmos we once saw only as black spaces in between the visible stars. It has changed the minds of scientists and physicists, let alone the average person, about whether there is, in fact, intelligent life and carbon-based life on other planets besides our own. We may not yet know how to get to those distant planets. But because of the Hubble, we now have a far better idea of how many of those places exist.

We may not yet know how to land a human on an asteroid, as President Obama has challenged NASA and the nation to do by 2025. But a NASA satellite mission called "Dawn," because its mission is to search for information about the dawn of our solar system, has already reached a protoplanet called Vesta in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter -- and is sending back images and data from Vesta daily. We have missions and probes investigating comets, dark matter, black holes, solar flares and other mysterious and powerful phenomena and celestial bodies. We may be using robotic eyes, just as surgeons in one city are now experimenting with doing remote surgery on patients residing somewhere else. But what those eyes are discovering is far more compelling and assumption-shattering than anything the Shuttle ever produced, or the Apollo-era space folk even realized existed.

But exploration of the cosmos -- even through robotic eyes -- still takes an enormous amount of commitment and investment. Which is to say ... money. Federal, government money. Why government money? For the very same reason national laboratories, NASA, and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, were formed in the first place. Private industry has no incentive to invest in endeavors where either: a) the result is greater scientific knowledge or understanding, but nothing that has any hope of a fiscal return on investment, or b) cutting-edge technology whose development is so nascent that its incorporation into commercial products is simply too risky to attempt.

So the disturbing piece of news in Thursday's New York Times was not the article about the ending of the Shuttle program. It was the article just below it (for those of us who still read the print version of our daily newspapers) about the House Appropriations Committee's proposal to cancel the James Webb Space Telescope project -- the follow-on telescope being built to replace the Hubble when the Hubble inevitably wears out.

Granted, the Webb project is over budget and behind schedule. But it's worth remembering that the Hubble itself was initially supposed to be launched in 1983 and was significantly over budget by the time it actually reached space in 1990 -- and even then, it still had a defective mirror needing repair. Yet, the Hubble is now one of the few space efforts most people agree was a spectacularly productive investment and achievement, even with those problems. It's estimated that the Webb telescope will require $1.5 billion to complete. But to put that amount in perspective, that's only the equivalent of three Space Shuttle launches. And the Webb telescope holds the promise of far more return on investment, as far as frontier-expanding knowledge is concerned, than most of the Shuttle missions combined.

The Webb is in danger, of course, because of the current budget-cutting fervor on Capitol Hill -- a subject with many tentacles and complexities that go far beyond funding a space telescope. But I think it's worth pointing out that the great achievements of the Apollo Era, which we look back on so nostalgically, and yearn for so pointedly ... took place in a very different federal budget and tax environment. In 1961, when President Kennedy made his famous moon challenge, the top tax rate for the wealthiest individuals in America was approximately 90%, and federal tax revenues totaled 17.8% of the GDP, according to the Office of Management and Budget. In 1966, when the top individual tax rate was reduced to 70%, tax revenues were still 17.3% of GDP. In 2010, the top tax rate for individuals was 35%, and federal tax revenues totaled only 14.9% of the GDP -- the lowest percentage in over half a century, and a number that the OMB estimates will drop even further in 2011.

I recognize that a tax rate is not the same thing as an actual tax paid. And that statistics are surprisingly malleable to support almost any argument a person wants to make, depending on how you set the selection criteria. But no matter how you work the numbers, the point is, not only was there more federal revenue, relative to GDP, in the 1960s than there is now, there was also a much different level of acceptance when it came to individuals contributing to federal infrastructure, systems and programs through taxes. Including the exploration of space.

The wealthy may have grumbled, but there was no revolt over the higher limits on the highest portion of a person's income, and certainly no fight to reduce that rate to below 30%. Conceptually, the idea of the wealthy contributing a higher share of their income (even if in practice, the actual amount was reduced dramatically) to the nation's purposes, was more acceptable, and more accepted, in fact and real numbers.

One can point to companies like SpaceX, co-founded by Elon Musk, who made his money developing PayPal, as an example of wealthy individuals who invested their more closely-kept wealth in entrepreneurial ventures that create jobs. True. But the goal of SpaceX is a commercial utilization of space, not exploration with no financial return in sight. If we want America to explore new scientific horizons and be exceptional in its national efforts, we need to rethink our death grip on the "mine is mine" philosophy of income and taxes.

A CEO friend of mine in Silicon Valley, who worked as an advisor to a long list of top American companies, often said that you can't cut your way to growth. Even if that weren't true, I would never advocate exploring space at the expense of the basic Medicare and social services that provide a baseline protection to those humans right here on Earth who are most in need. Exploration is a luxury, not a necessity. But we have been most proud of our nation when it endeavored to do great things, and aimed higher than minimizing revenue and operating costs. That's a hard goal to get enthusiastic about.

The Space Shuttle era is ending. Whether anything extraordinary follows will depend, in large part, on whether we can once again get enthusiastic about giving the government the funds it needs not only to take care of the basics here at home, but to aim for the stars, as well.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.