Humans to Mars – For and against

Today I was reading an article by Frank Stratford, CEO and founder of MarsDrive, about the benefits of going to Mars. I was nodding my head in agreement as I usually do, but after looking at the comments, one by Heinrich Monroe particularly threw me. It’s a long one, so I’ve picked out the key points (in my opinion).

Oh, we’re going to get spinoffs from it? Like “from medical technology to food and water to new materials, safety technologies, and so much more”? … You know, if we spend $100B on just about any massive technological and engineering goal, spinoffs like that… will fall out as well. The question is whether those spinoffs were really worth $100B, and whether we couldn’t have gotten more value on them with smarter investment.” – Heinrich Monroe

When I talk about the value of having space science programs, in addition to the intrinsic value of advancing scientific understanding, I often refer to the unforeseen advances in technology that come as a result. For example, we probably wouldn’t have instant global communications via satellite feed, let alone the host of material science, medical and software advances that have resulted from space programs. But the comments made by Heinrich did make me wonder whether we could have achieved these better with direct, targeted programs.

Image taken from Unfortunately I'm unable to credit the original poster.
Image taken from Unfortunately I’m unable to credit the original poster.

As Donald Rumsfeld has said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and and unknown unknowns. We don’t even know about some of the discoveries to be made working on space science and their implications to every day life until we make the discovery. However, one could perhaps say the same about a targeted research program. It’s certainly a tricky one to answer, although I will say this.

There is a lot of money being used for things that I disagree with ethically, and that isn’t being used for programs such as advancing medical science. By advocating for more space science funding, I’m not convinced that this would greatly cannibalise funding going towards these other programs. It’s not a choice between one or the other.

Having said that, I would be very interested to see a study that estimates the value of space science research compared to direct research in other fields. This is presumably very difficult, as it’s hard to put a number on the value of science development (would discovering life on Mars have intrinsic value?), but this shouldn’t stop people from trying. I’m sure something like this exists, but given my experience in determining the effectiveness of charities, I wouldn’t be that surprised if it didn’t. One example is the fact that for every dollar invested in NASA, there has been a $7-14 return on investment. If you are aware of any general studies of this nature, feel free to put a link in the comments below.

I may be biased – I am a space science researcher after all!

Here is a link to a neat infographic that summarises the spin-off benefits of NASA technology and funding.


3 thoughts on “Humans to Mars – For and against”

  1. It has been a while, but I was at a talk where the presenter discussed ROI for various government programs. He put Apollo at 8X. The national freeway system of Eisenhower was 13X. He said that spending on NIH and NSF has an ROI between 2X and 3X. That’s the best I can do. I’ll try to remember the where and when better. It was circa 2001 IIRC.

  2. Thanks Quantiger. I assume NIH and NSF refer to the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation? That’s quite a stark difference, I wonder why NIH and NSF are so relatively ineffective?

    1. We discussed that in the Q&A. He thought that it was because NIH and NSF are research organizations. It isn’t their role to translate that research into mission impossible development. BTW, 2x-3X isn’t bad. It’s better than military peacetime, which is around 0.9X. We asked about wartime, and he said he hadn’t studied that enough, and could only say that wartime spending varied a lot. WWII war spending produced some intensive development and research that came into broad use immediately after. Korea and Vietnam were costs without benefits.

      NIH and NSF cost per product has gone up over time faster than inflation. I took a look at that, and it was around $60 million per product fielded in 2007. That’s not too bad really, considering what pharma spends. But I know that there is a ton of intellectual property languishing in uniOFor some reason, our venture capital system doesn’t look there, and very few entrepreneurs do either. But our current day VC’s are lazy. What they do can hardly be called “working”. They sit and let people pitch them and mostly make selections based on the lemming algorithm. (e.g. is there a sector recognized? Is everyone else doing it? If yes, then go for it if they like the people.) Any sane person can see that it’s obvious that if venture capital over-invests in a sector be 2X to 11X what it’s markets can support, that guarantees most will fail, which is a major reason venture capital has returns as low as it has.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *