“The Planetary Society” is trying to whip up public action in the United States to pressure the federal government to restore spending programs for NASA. The website tells the reader, “For decades, Jupiter’s moon Europa has cried out for exploration. Its large ocean may be one of the most habitable places in the solar system.” In the sample email that the visitor to the site is encouraged to send to policymakers, one of the specific items it requests is: “Restore NASA’s Planetary Science Division to its historical level of $1.5 billion per year so it can maintain a balanced program of exploration as described by the National Research Council’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey.”
Yet the best way to promote space exploration and genuinely beneficial scientific research is to privatize the whole enterprise. As a first pass, note that we must always consider the opportunity cost of resources devoted to space travel. It is probably true that private investors never would have financed the Apollo moon shot in the 1960s, but that’s because it represented an inefficient use of resources (given the policy backdrop and state of the economy).
Bastiat’s famous admonition to look at both the seen and the unseen applies just as much to grandiose space projects as it does to, say, sports stadiums: It’s not enough to ask, “Would humans benefit from a mission to Europa, if it were a free gift?” Rather, the question is, “Would humans benefit more from a mission to Europa, versus the best possible alternative use of the resources such a mission would require?”
Notice too that the tradeoff doesn’t have to be between something cool and exotic on the one hand (like exploring Europa), versus something lame and boring on the other hand (like giving everybody an extra pair of dress socks). The oceans on Earth are hardly explored, after all; maybe it makes more sense to pour billions of dollars of research into colonizing them, before we try leapfrogging to a planet which is about 780 million kilometers away.
All of the usual problems with socialist central planning–brilliantly explained by Ludwig von Mises and elaborated by Friedrich Hayek–kick in when it comes to space exploration. Remember, it took the brilliant and brave iconoclast Richard Feynman to get to the bottom of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. And less disastrous but more ridiculous, in 1999 NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because two different teams working on the project had an English units / metric system miscommunication.
There are plenty of commercial applications of modest space exploration efforts, including obvious things like placing satellites into orbit but also more exotic possibilities such as space tourism and mining asteroids. Pure profit-and-loss calculations from retail sales don’t have to be the sole driver, either; the X Prize showed the potential for spurring innovation with a relatively modest amount of donated money.
In conclusion, my guess is that The Planetary Society’s suggestion that citizens of the United States should effectively spend (in their role as current and future taxpayers) $1.5 billion per year on planetary research is absurd; there are far more urgent uses of that money for the foreseeable future.
But further, I claim that if the government would simply get out of the way and remove legal and regulatory roadblocks to private space efforts, then humans will reach other planets in a much more sensible and sustainable fashion. Think of it this way: Yes, the United States government was able to put a flag on the moon and collect a few rocks, decades before a private venture would have done so. But after the photo ops, what came of it? The moon’s potential will be realized only when companies operating in the private sector find ways of profitably sending people there.