Should NASA Return to the Moon?

As an aerospace engineering student at The University of Texas at Austin, I am particularly affected by this decision. In addition, I have reaped the benefits associated with funding NASA:

zerogravity
(this picture was taken aboard NASA’s Weightless Wonder)

I will admit that I once dreamed of working at NASA. Not anymore. In approaching any problem, I often desire to comprehend the underlying principles. This time is no different. One cannot deny that there are benefits to returning to the moon. According to NASA, a few reasons to return to the moon are:

  1. To “[extend] human presence to the moon to enable eventual settlement.”
  2. To “[pursue] scientific activities that address fundamental questions about the history of Earth, the solar system and the universe – and about our place in them.”
  3. To “[test] technologies, systems, flight operations and exploration techniques to reduce the risks and increase the productivity of future missions to Mars and beyond.”
  4. To “[provide] a challenging, shared and peaceful activity that unites nations in pursuit of common objectives.”
  5. To “[expand] Earth’s economic sphere, and conduct lunar activities with benefits to life on the home planet.”
  6. To “[use] a vibrant space exploration program to engage the public, encourage students and help develop the high-tech workforce that will be required to address the challenges of tomorrow.”

There is no doubt that these reasons are noble. But, are they in the best interest of society? That is not for me to say. Personally, I believe so. However, the more important question is whether or not NASA is capable of achieving these goals. There is no doubt in my mind that they are more than capable, but just because an organization is capable of something doesn’t mean it should be pursued.

I should state my opinion from the get-go: NASA is a government entity; therefore, it is inherently inefficient. As a result, the way in which it spends taxpayer dollars is ineffective. I will simply ask: after 51 years and $800b later (in 2007 dollars), what has NASA accomplished?

The answers would most likely align with the reasons for NASA’s returning to the moon, as outlined above. Many people would argue that the technology and products that have spun off from NASA’s activities have more than accounted for its enormous budget. What exactly has NASA invented or helped invent? I have listed a few products and technologies below (I pulled this from a hardcore NASA fanboy website; therefore, some of them might be a stretch of the imagination):

  1. Scratch-resistant lenses
  2. Golf ball aerodynamics
  3. Solar energy
  4. Voice-controlled wheelchair
  5. Microcomputers

These people would argue that without NASA, products and technologies such as these wouldn’t exist. That claim falls flat on its place. After all, all of the products listed above (and on the website for that matter) have market applications. Therefore, at some point in time, they would have been invented.

The real question is: what wasn’t invented? After all, fifty one years and eight hundred billion dollars is a lot of money. To give you a perspective, Toyota’s total operating expenses from 03/31/2008 to 03/31/2009 were $234b. This means one could run Toyota for nearly four years (assuming that maximum losses were incurred each year).

Toyota isn’t the greatest example though. Toyota spends most of its money on manufacturing and selling vehicles that already exist, not research and development. Therefore, we should look at the cost of developing an idea (after all, NASA is credited with developing ideas).

According to a study (see [3]) published in 2006, the cost to develop a new pharmaceutical and bring it to market is between $500m and $2b. A notable portion of this cost is likely due to unnecessary regulations; therefore, it is reasonable to assume that these numbers would be lower if this wasn’t the case. Additionally, in a given year, only about 25 pharmaceuticals make it to market.

With this realization, we see that $800b is a significant portion of money. At the very least, it would account for anywhere from 400 to 1600 new pharmaceuticals. Or, in the time domain, anywhere from 16 to 64 years of pharmaceutical development (at a development speed of 25 pharmaceuticals per year). Imagine the diseases we could be treating!

With all this said, I think my answer should be clear. I do not think NASA should return to the moon. Furthermore, I think there is a valid argument for NASA being abolished altogether. However, I would like to add that abolishing NASA would accomplish virtually nothing with regards to the federal budget deficits we are and have been facing. After all, it accounts for less than .5% of the federal budget. The only viable option (currently) is to cut overseas spending on fruitless military ventures. Once this is done, we can discuss NASA and the welfare state.

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