Space exploration is great and amazing, and I want my fictional US government to fund it to the tune of $1 trillion per year, instead of the (comparatively) meager \$17.5 billion it is getting now.

But why? (Or why not, if you're feeling contrarian)

What reason would there be for of all these resources to be spent on space when they can perhaps better help the poor and dispossessed (or, more likely, the rich and well-connected) here on Earth?

Answers will be judged based on plausibility. What could persuade a large section of the US population that space exploration and/or colonization is important enough to spend twice as much on it as the US is currently spending on its formidable military? Alternatively, is there any way that annual trillion dollars could come from private, (for-profit?) sources?

PS: I'm thinking present-day technology at the start of the super-spending spree.

  • Is this a one sided question? Does the question "why not?" have equal weight in your mind, or is the null-hypothesis to not spend anything on space? – Cort Ammon Dec 30 '15 at 21:03
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    Why not is perfectly acceptable, @CortAmmon – Serban Tanasa Dec 30 '15 at 21:03
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    Same reason it was done before. – JDługosz Dec 31 '15 at 13:25

10 Answers 10

up vote 9 down vote accepted

You say that you want "present-day technology at the start of the super-spending spree". I'm going to take this to mean basically our current world.

Wikipedia has a pretty decent article on the economy of the United States. It more or less starts out by stating that

The United States' GDP was estimated to be \$17.914 trillion as of Q2 2015.

Well, let's round that to \$18 trillion. (This is in line with another figure in the sidebar of the same article, stating \$18.125 trillion for 2015.) You want the government to spend \$1 trillion of that on a space program. Per year. Every year. For an indeterminate future.

For Fiscal Year 2014, real-world US public finances are revenues of \$3.0 trillion and expenses \$3.5 trillion. I don't have any specific number handy for the entire US space program costs (your question does however state \$17.5 billion for NASA, which is likely a significant fraction but not the entire space program costs). We can probably safely assume that no matter how you slice it, the total cost is nowhere near a trillion dollars annually. Hence, we can simplify and say that you want to add an expense of \$1 trillion per year.

That brings the expenses to \$4.5 trillion. If revenues are left unchanged, this means that the budget deficit triples, from \$500 billion to \$1.5 trillion.

Individual income taxes, social insurance and corporate taxes add up to 90.7% of US tax revenues in FY2014. So these are the ones that you would probably need to raise if you wanted to actually fund such a spending spree. Good luck selling to the general public nearly outright doubling essentially all personal and corporate tax rates. Even in the current climate about corporate taxes, I think that would be a pretty hard sell. Corporate taxes make up 10.6% of the total taxation, so even throwing your corporate friends by the wayside and riding on a wave of discontent with corporate taxation to raise corporate taxes won't get you very far (and would probably force many companies to either shut down, or move out of the country).

Or, you could take on debt to get the money to blast off into space (either internally in the country, or in the international bonds markets, or a combination of the two). US public debt is already at 102% of GDP, or \$18.1 trillion in Q1 2015. If you add a \$1 trillion deficit to the existing \$483 billion deficit, every year, with no other changes (particularly, I'm ignoring the cost of servicing the debt, which probably will make matters worse, not better, in real life), in ten years you have racked up a total public debt of \$33 trillion. With GDP growth at officially 2.1% per year, merely extrapolating that curve, after ten years GDP is up 23%, but the public debt on the other hand is up 82%! In these ten years, the debt-to-GDP ratio grows from roughly parity to 148%. (And parity is bad enough, objectively speaking.) Compare this to Greece's 126% debt-to-GDP ratio per 2014 (and that's after some of the recent debt write-downs; it was 161% in 2012, when the country was deep into their financial dire straits).

Obviously, none of this happens in a vacuum (no pun intended), but your politicians will have to either sell it to the general public that they need to increase the total taxation by some 65-70% (which would bring the tax revenues from the current \$3.0 trillion to the almost \$5 trillion needed to balance the budget, assuming no dynamic effects which, again, are more likely to make matters worse than make them better), take on sufficient public debt that even with current GDP growth the United States would surpass present-day Greece in terms of debt to GDP ratio within a few years, or some combination of the two.

And this is before we even start considering the effect on things like wages throughout the society that your little project would have, which Thucydides so eloquently brought up.

Another way of looking at this is to compare it against the spending that went into the Apollo program. Apollo cost a grand total of \$25.4 billion in 1973. That would be somewhere on the order of \$150-\$200 billion today, accounting for inflation. If we are generous and call it \$200 billion, that's only 1/5 of your proposed spending, and over a much longer period of time. In other words, assuming the costs of Apollo were spread out over a decade, what you are proposing would be, in relative terms, somewhere on the order of 50 times the cost of the Apollo program. And you thought Apollo was expensive...

In summary: good luck. The politicians of your world are going to need it.

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    This answer assumes that no income is generated as a result of the spending. Most of the spending would be in the private sector, so some of that money would come back in the form of taxes. A conservative estimate of 20% would bring our real cost down to (only!!) $800 billion. The increased science knowledge would have a positive impact on industry, and if we can find something profitable up there, the government can reap those rewards as well. I imagine asteroids in orbit would sell for a pretty penny to nations who can afford it! – corsiKa Jan 27 '16 at 15:39

An alien space probe enters low orbit and fires a high powered laser at the President while he is giving a speech on the White House lawn. The shot misses but uses the last of the probe's energy reserves. It falls into the Earth's atmosphere and is incinerated, leaving no clue to its origins. In response, the American government and many of its leading companies unite in a one trillion dollar venture to master space flight in preparation for the aliens' return.

Satisfied with the results of the first probe, the lead scientist at SpaceX quietly dismantles the other two "alien space probes" which she clandestinely built, confident that they would not be needed after all.

  • We'd know the orbit to a high degree of precision quickly (probably within half a revolution, or some 45 minutes in LEO) after an interesting object appeared moving toward Earth and we started tracking it. Orbital decay, even in LEO, takes time; in LEO, absent reboosts, it takes on the order of weeks to months to lose sufficient altitude due to drag that you actually reenter the appreciable atmosphere. If the probe is launched from Earth, there's no realistic way major governments would not know about the launch and the probe's orbit, although the purpose could perhaps be concealed. – a CVn Dec 30 '15 at 23:46
  • This is definitely the most plausible answer (though as @Michael noted, it's still not that plausible). – abcde Dec 31 '15 at 2:07
  • I'm not so certain that a company like SpaceX couldn't pull it off. Especially in a few years when they are ascending into orbit on a regular basis. The biggest challenge in putting something into orbit secretly, is getting it up there without anyone noticing. For Virgin-Atlantic, MirCorp or SpaceX, that will be just part of their daily business processes. Who would notice if one externally mounted tank came loose during a regular flight. As for the slow decay issue, the probe can always self-destruct after the attack. – Henry Taylor Dec 31 '15 at 16:29
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    NORAD and US SPACE COMMAND would notice, since it is their jobs to track orbital objects which could potentially pose a threat to space operations and US security. They can track objects down to the size of nuts and bolts which have come loose from spacecraft, and send course corrections to the ISS and formerly the Space Shuttle to avoid pieces of debris this size or larger. – Thucydides Jan 1 '16 at 6:05
  • What @Thucydides said. And if not them, I'm sure every other major power in the world has similar capabilities. Someone would almost certainly share, if only for the good PR it would bring them. – a CVn Jan 1 '16 at 21:48

Michael Kjörling has done a great job in demonstrating how difficult it would be to do what you are suggesting. One other effect which was not delved into was the effect of inflation. If the US government (or Dr Evil, for that matter) were to throw a trillion dollars per year at a particular project, then they would essentially be outbidding everyone else who wanted access to that good or service. (as a side note, markets in Miami and surrounding regions of Florida saw similar effects in real estate and other markets in the 1980's and 90's as billions of dollars of "hot" drug money flooded the place).

Since spacecraft by themselves are meticulously hand crafted, you are going to create a huge demand for very skilled machinists and fabricators who can put together the rockets and space hardware, creating a shortage of the same skilled workers in other industries, ranging from aerospace (who is going to build or repair jet engines for airliners and military aircraft, for example) and driving wages through the roof for these sorts of trades.

Spaceflight is also computationally heavy, so computer programmers and hardware will similarly become priced out of the market. Your iPhone or Android device costs $600 today (the price of unlocked phones), imagine what sort of marketing contortions will take place to make smartphones available to the general public when they cost 3000 dollars each.

The downrange effects will also be very serious. As demand for some trades and commodities will rise, prices will start rising for consumer goods and services which are becoming rare. As well, many trades will become discounted, and the education system will also become distorted to supply all the STEM graduates needed for the space program (as well as all the non space industries which still need these skill sets). And other places will raise their prices to capture the higher cash-flow that is available with an extra trillion dollars per year in the economy. Is a space program really worth a $25 Big Mac?

The final issue which was also discussed is how do you pay for all this? In the end, there has been no "killer app" for space, despite 50+ years of speculation and actual flight. The only services which has been profitable are based on observation (i.e. weather and surveillance satellites) and communications satellites. Communications satellites are getting smaller and cheaper both due to commercial pressure and technological innovations (especially the competition from fibre optic cables and cellular devices), while surveillance satellites are also becoming smaller and cheaper in order to maximize their utility (especially amortization of the launch and building costs) and squeeze out a profit.

While there has been some speculation that asteroids could be mined for things like platinum group metals, coming into Earth orbit with 22 trillion dollars of asteroidal metals will crash the market (you won't be getting 22 trillion for sure), and unless you make the big strike early in the process, you will never be able to pay off the investment. Other space resources are equally magical, 3He mined from the Moon is only valuable if you have working aneutronic fusion reactors to "burn" it in, and hydrocarbons from Titan would be ridiculously overpriced in Earth's market (even when oil was 100 barrel). Using space resources to support space activity is a chicken and egg issue; it pays if you have a lot of people in space, but you can't have a lot of people in space unless you can quickly access space resources....

Given the current global economic crisis is (like the Great Depression of 1929–39 or Japan's "Lost Decade" of the 1990's) an expression of excessive debt, you might be better off working out how the US government could cut current spending by a trillion/year for the foreseeable future instead.

  • Yes, I specifically ignored several factors. Not just inflation, but also dynamic effects on the economy and cost of servicing the public debt are ones I specifically left out in my answer. Those are simply far too hard to estimate (and it's late at night where I'm at), and like I mentioned in my answer, the most likely effect of those is to make matters worse, not better, than the already difficult situation I describe in my answer. – a CVn Dec 31 '15 at 0:13

An extinction level event is coming to earth...

Lets say a huge dinosaur killing size asteroid is detected on a collision course with earth or several major super volcanoes are about to erupt, or global warming is going into overdrive, and we cant find a way to prevent it but we do have a year or so before impact.
One of the few solutions remaining is to send as many humans in to space or deep bunkers as possible. Then it would be entirely reasonable for all countries to spend a significant fraction of their GDP launching people into space or building really strong shelters underground.

  • At that point, you have to answer the question of "where do you send them?". Besides, what killed the dinosaurs wasn't the initial impact, it was the debris that made it into the atmosphere as a result. Even if we wanted to send people to Mars today, and had all the technology we needed, we couldn't, because of that pesky issue known as "launch windows". Interplanetary transfer orbits are only practical for a portion of either celestial body's orbit, because even a low-energy Hohmann transfer at other times would take more energy than the exponential nature of the rocket equation gives us. – a CVn Jan 28 '16 at 15:10
  • @MichaelKjörling The event doesn't need to cause instant extinction as long as living on earth is really no longer a long term option we would spend heavily trying for an alternative. The question didn't ask where in space we would go; just why go into space. Given a year of warning there would be a launch window as well. – sdrawkcabdear Jan 28 '16 at 17:16

Because private space corporations have bribed and provided kickbacks for people in Congress and the IRS, and provided the requisite adjustments (hacks) to government accounting software, in order to arrange for $1 trillion to simply go missing, a few dollars at a time, between the IRS's collections and it's appearance on the top line of the Federal budget.

Asteroid Mining

Asterank has a list of asteroids sorted by value, which includes an approximate cost it would take to get a ship out to the rock, and bring it back, along with the approximate value of the raw resources. It can also sort on total value, cost to retrieve, as well as Δv or distance.

Currently the most "cost effective" rocks have only a net profit of a few billion dollars, but some of them have an estimated value over 100 trillion, due to their size and approximate composition, although these are harder to verify due to the sheer distance from Earth and lack of solid data.

It would not be a stretch to make this the impetus for spending that much money on putting things into space. Even if only $10T gets brought back every 5 years, that's still double the investment being made.

  • More importantly, it might be worth being the first to get out there and lay claim to all the important asteroids, after perhaps China tries to do so. That would serve as great political motivation. – AndreiROM Dec 30 '15 at 21:02
  • The Asteroid Gap? – Serban Tanasa Dec 30 '15 at 21:03
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    It doesn't really make sense to mine asteroids to bring those materials back to Earth. It makes far more sense to mine asteroids as building materials (and raw resources) for things in space. – Jim2B Dec 31 '15 at 4:06
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    The current inhibitor of asteroid mining is that most resources found on asteroids can be mined much cheaper and safer on Earth. – Philipp Dec 31 '15 at 14:21
  • @Philipp certainly true! But its not so far of a stretch to fictionalize a world where it is worth mining asteroids. I know in terms of copper, we're mining rock that is starting to go below 1% copper concentrations (El Teniente, the 6th largest copper mine in the world is harvesting rock at 0.99% and expects to take the next 50 years pulling the last 15.2Mt or so of copper out of the ground). mining-technology.com/features/… – Draco18s Dec 31 '15 at 17:37

The influx of cash flow might be enough to make it cheaper for good.

Think about computers and how much it cost to produce a computer with a lot of power a long time ago. Think about the competition now and the races to innovation.

It would be like that for space exploration. Fund it enough to kickstart the innovation. Get companies built on space tourism. We could imagine a joy ride in Low Earth Orbit to be like a visit to the Bahamas and we'll want a focus on our own comfort.

We'll want to get there faster, safer, more comfortable, with better technology. Perhaps we'll want communication back home or more varieties of food, or a rendezvous with a station that has its own perks. Don't just look at this as an opportunity for the private sector — this involves the planet.

It would create new jobs and the race to compete in the new market would drive innovation and solve problems like food, communications, entertainment, comfort, safety, and convenience.

There's plenty of other reasons to want to do it, like retrieving things from space that we need back home, like the isotope helium-3 which is used in many different technologies and we'll need for things back home like nuclear fusion reactions, medical imaging, and cryogenics.

All of these technologies will work together and it'll be bound to the global mindset.

Other answers have mentioned asteroid mining as a commercial incentive for space exploration. However, there is a problem with that: Currently most resources found on asteroids can be mined much cheaper and much more cost-efficient on Earth.

To make asteroid mining (or mining on moons or other planets) more lucrative, a reward would be needed which can not be acquired on Earth that easily and which has vast industrial applications.

Common metals like Iron, Cobalt or Nickel won't do as they are too abundant on Earth. Even heavier elements like Gold or Platinum are of questionable profitability unless supply and demand on Earth change dramatically in the next few years. Precious stones are only valuable because they are rare and flashy, not because they are useful, and their prices are greatly inflated due to cartels. Compounds worth burning for energy (oil, methane) are usually organic in origin so unlikely to exist in space.

That means to make extra-terrestrial mining worth it tomorrow, we need:

  • A new technological breakthrough which makes an existing scarce resource on Earth so high in demand that mining it from asteroids becomes necessary to fulfill it.
    • A drug which greatly prolongs ones life when consumed regularly?
    • A material necessary to build super-fast computers? (If you need to launch a rocket into space so I can play the latest games with a decent framerate - so be it!)
    • A new form of energy source? It might not just be the fuel which is scarce. A material required in large quantities to build the reactors to make use of it might also be a bottleneck.
  • Discovery of a new substance which does not exist (and can not be synthesized) on Earth and which has properties which are so unique and useful that exploitation becomes viable.
    • Anti-Matter asteroids?
    • Super-heavy elements?
    • Anything an advanced alien civilization could leave behind?

When you are willing to wait a century or two, you could also wait for any of the currently widely exploited minerals on Earth runs out so asteroid-mining becomes lucrative.

This kind of spending would make the project the top priority can be justified for a number of possible reasons:

  • Military - this is the same order of magnitude of current US military spending, so the capacity is there if there was a military need (either earth borne or extraterrestrial). E.g. hurling asteroids, space weapon platforms.
  • Survival - for similar reasons (Sun going nova, asteroids, etc., if there was cause to think such expenditure was necessary - then it could happen.
  • Cultural/religious - Think about the pyramids - If a culture or its leaders thinks that something is important enough for its own sake, then no cost is too large.
  • Economic - If there is economic sense, for example space elevator makes economic sense of colonization or exportation or zero G manufacturing.

A new space race.

Imagine that governments and big corporations alike get involved in Space Race II. The US government alone probably can not reach 1 trillion without considerable (impossible?) sacrifices, as pointed out in other answers. In Space Race I, ~23 billion was spent between 1961-1969, using Wolfram alpha this can be estimated to ~150-185 billion today.

So the majority of the investment would have to come from private sources, but why would corporations and people invest in Space Race II? Here follows some ideas:

  • Resources and "land". Governments and corporations that want to use asteroids or part of planets for profit need to be first to claim. @Draco18s answer already points out the potential gain of this.
  • To avoid catastrophe. It could be shortage of rare metals, it could be climate change, the important part is that the catastrophe is big and upon them, and that space exploration is the answer.
  • Pride or for the greater good. Just as people contribute voluntary to charities or war efforts, some corporations will contribute for PR or to boost morale of their employees, individual citizens will contribute for similar reasons (status or feel good). Citizens contributions could be organised through methods used today to raise money for charities or similar, such as Space-fund raisers, Space-lotteries or straight up Space-donations.
  • The third point ("pride or for the greater good") reminds me of an interview with (I think) Jim Lovell. I can't seem to find it at the moment, but one thing that was said was basically, about the Apollo program, "people weren't very excited about going to the Moon, but they sure were excited about beating the Russians". – a CVn Dec 31 '15 at 11:44
  • @MichaelKjörling Never underestimated the power of gloating (or schadenfreude). :) – Drakryttare Dec 31 '15 at 19:41

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