JFK, LBJ and James Webb in Houston at what would later become JSC.NASA

Space has always been a non-partisan realm enjoying broad support from both parties. From President Kennedy’s stirring 1962 Moon Speech at Rice to Ronald Reagan’s heart-rending tribute to the Challenger astronauts, our political leaders are at their best when they support the American spirit of daring exploration.
Still, every few years some misguided political strategist concludes that attacking our investment in space science and exploration with the classic “problems right here on Earth” argument will be a winner and leads some poor politician into portraying our space program as a boondoggle. Although the afflicted candidates invariably reveal their ignorance of both science and economics in the process, they often confuse and misinform the public about the amazing good that NASA and other government space programs do for American citizens every day.

Screenshot from Fletcher Television AdFletcher Campaign

I raise this topic because I see that Lizzie Fletcher, a congressional candidate in the Texas 7th district, has launched an anti-space campaign television ad. Her attack on John Culberson, the Chair of the House appropriations subcommittee for science, is so childishly produced that any educated person might think it doesn’t warrant a response. However, when a serious candidate from the Houston area can go on the attack against a NASA program and get the backing of the local paper, everyone in the space and science communities had better wake up. This sort of politicking must be firmly confronted, least it gain traction among the campaign staff of otherwise well meaning candidates from either side.
I’ve written a number of pieces on the value of both government and private investment in space to our nation and the world, but it clearly bears some repetition. Allow me to open with my usual statement on this debate:

No significant problem has ever been solved from inside the box and Earth’s major problems will only be solved from space.
Now, let’s consider some specifics behind that assertion:
Weather: Consider what things would be like if we still had to predict severe weather based on barometric changes. While the hurricanes that often batter our Southern states are devastating, the early warnings provided by observation satellites have saved thousands of lives and $billions in property damage every season. The disaster Harvey caused in Houston would have been unimaginably worse without the monies previously appropriated to space by long-term thinkers in Congress. The NASA budget includes a lot more than telescopes and interplanetary probes and the advanced imaging and other technologies developed for those most demanding missions often find their way back into Earth observation systems.
Climate: Where would our understanding of the complex composition and interplay of Earth’s oceans and atmosphere be without NASA and NOAA satellite systems, data and analysis? Can you imagine even discussing climate change without that data?
While we are at it, can you guess what the #1 carbon reducing technology ever deployed is? Try the Global Positioning System. GPS is a constellation of DoD satellites that provides free location services to the world. This data enables myriad systems which increase the efficiency of every form of transportation on Earth, reducing the fuel consumption of cars, ships and trans-oceanic planes by up to 15%.
And don’t forget that back in the 80s, space research drove the Montreal Protocol which successfully banned the misuse of CFCs, saving the Earth’s protective ozone layer from being a totally loss. That congressionally funded space science spared humanity and much of the life on Earth from devastating cancers.
Energy: In addition to the energy savings from GPS consider that space-based solar power promises a seven-fold increase in efficiency over terrestrial panels while also removing the environmental deprivation caused by covering large swaths of land with solar panels. Also, a rare isotope of helium that is probably abundant on the moon could provide unlimited clean fusion power on Earth. Funding long term project like these is the hallmark of a nation that planning for a prosperous future.
Resources: Since Malthus, pundits have been predicting the demise of civilization due to resource limitations. Thankfully, the doomsayers have always been wrong because we have been willing to invest in developing technologies that enhance our abilities to extract, utilize and recycle what we have on Earth. Still, the cynics are correct in the end and these processes by which we survive today do take a toll on our environment.
There is no Earth-bound solution to our resource limitations, just delaying tactics. Only by moving mining and heavy manufacturing off the Earth can we truly protect it in the long run. That’s a bold supposition but one that some very smart folks like Jeff Bezos see as a future reality. Many of these ideas were developed at NASA and the agency is partnering with commercial firms in ways that help them develop the capabilities that will be required in a future space economy. If we do not invest in these long term space based solutions we will inevitably run out of many critical resources or destroy each other fighting over them.
Economics: Returning to my favorite example, GPS  returns $billions of dollars to the US economy annually by improving transportation efficiency and logistics. It also saves lives by making rescue possible in remote locations and by speeding first responders to the scene.
NASA’s investment in launch vehicles designed to support the agency’s research and exploration needs have created thousands of jobs across the country, many of them in Texas. These jobs are sustainable and supported by non-governmental commercial space launch activities. They also provide positive trade flows to the US as firms like SpaceX capture more and more of the international launch market from China, Russia and Europe. None of that would be possible without the space appropriations made by the subcommittee that John Culberson chairs.
The countless spinoffs from micro-electronics to memory foam make our daily lives better, create jobs and deliver huge returns to our economy. The research needs of the space program were a significant reason for the development of what is now the Internet.
Inspiration: Finally, life on Earth isn’t about merely surviving. Taking away the exciting future that NASA exploration promises would be a national tragedy. When we push the ultimate boundaries and demand answers to the most fundamental questions we transcend our humble state as mere animal and we do it as a nation and as a species. All “mankind” was uplifted by NASA’s Apollo programs. Many of our generations most brilliant entrepreneurial technologists including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen were inspired by those moon missions, until they were cut short by the “right here on Earth crowd,” of their day.

JPL Floor Marker Designates the Center of the UniverseGreg Autry

The mission that Ms. Fletcher has singled out is a perfect example of inspirational vision. A plaque that marks “The Center of the Universe” at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reads “Dare Mighty Things” and that NASA center has no more challenging space science mission than braving Jupiter’s radiation belt and landing in a vacuum on the ice shell of Europa in hopes of finding our most distant relatives in the warm sea that lies beneath. What basic scientific question of our age could possibly rival “are we alone in the Universe?” in importance? Can you imagine the transcendent moment when we find that the answer to that age-old question is “no.”?
Still, attacking the seemingly quixotic quest for life on other worlds has a solid history among Luddites. The famously penny pinching Senator William Proxmire made a career out of attacking science funding and most famously crippled the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence back in the 70s.  SETI was a relatively inexpensive offshoot of radio astronomy that inspired the hit film Contact and which still enjoys broad public interest. Carl Sagan later convinced Proxmire that he was wrong, but the damage had been done. I personally advocated for restoring SETI funding during my service on the NASA transition team and I still believe it would be a small amount of money well spent. Let’s not elect any more Proxmires.

Screenshot from Fletcher Television AdFletcher Campaign

I’m sure that Ms. Fletcher is a fine person and she may have good ideas in areas outside of space policy, where he website and statements suggest she has no depth. The $390million featured in her ad seems like a huge deal until you consider that it represents 0.24% of the $163 billion cost overrun on the F-35 project or 0.64% of the $60 billion in annual Medicare fraud.  I sincerely hope she will learn more about the benefits of space to people on Earth, pull her silly cartoon ad and apologize for using a nonpartisan field of endeavor so valuable to humanity, our nation and her district as a political weapon. Until then, let’s not send her or space science opponents from either party to Washington DC. Let’s send them to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
Much of what I’ve said here is covered in more detail in a paper I presented a few years ago at an AIAA space conference:  Space Policy, Intergenerational Ethics, and the Environment.
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