Why Waste Resources on Space? The Value of Sending A Car into Space on the Falcon Heavy


As someone who has worked in the space arena for a long time, I, as well as millions around the world are still basking in the happy glow of the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy commercial launch vehicle with its payload of a Tesla Roadster and its space suited passenger (nothing in the suit really).  However, as inevitably is the case, there are some that do not like that this happened.  The cry is that the resources spent in this venture could be better spent solving X,Y, or Z earthly problem.  While this sentiment is understandable, it is an example of linear thinking that misses the entire point of technology and its benefits to our civilization.

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In an article by Nathan Robinson from the Guardian the sentiment of “why this waste” is illustrated (Why Elon Musk’s SpaceX Launch is Utterly Depressing).  The money quote is reproduced here.

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 7.47.29 AMThis sentiment raises its head every time such popular space feats happen. In a Life magazine article from 1969 a similar sentiment was heard. Screen Shot 2012-12-29 at 6.34.20 PM

Mrs Reynolds and Mr. Robinson both miss the point of such ventures.  Mrs. Reynolds (and the writer that featured her) and Mr. Robinson both fall prey to the “preferential allocation of resources fallacy” (I made that one up).  It is their postulate that only if money were spent on what they think would be best such as poor children and and or solving political problems and rendering aid in far off places, and do that until all problems on the Earth are solved, then all would be well and you boys and girls can then trot off to the stars.

This thought pattern is what brought down the Apollo program, and several trillion dollars of spending on poverty programs later we still have these problems.  Thus, I would like to illustrate the fallacy of this argument by presenting a letter and its response written in the early 1970’s by Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger of NASA when he was asked a similar question by a nun working in poverty programs in Africa.  Dr. Stuhlinger’s response illustrates the value of these activities as well as anyone has.  Dr. Stuhlinger was the head of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.


Letter Between Sister Mary Jucunda, O.P. and Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger

Some of the reasons for exploring space, when there are numerous social problems on earth, were described years ago by Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, Associate Director of Science at the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville. While the numbers and dollar amounts may have changed, his words are as valid today as they were then.


His beliefs were expressed in his reply to a letter from Sister Mary Jucunda, O.P., a nun who works among starving native children of Zambia, Africa. Dr. Stuhlinger is known internationally for his contributions to electric and nuclear propulsion and his concepts for a manned journey to Mars.

 Touched by Sister Mary’s concern and sincerity, Dr. Stuhlinger answered her letter as follows:

Your letter was one of many which are reaching me every day, but it has touched me more deeply than all the others because it came so much from the depths of a searching mind and a compassionate heart.

I will try to answer your question as best as I possibly can.

First, however, I would like to say what great admiration I have for you, and for all your many brave sisters, because you are dedicating your lives to the noblest cause of man: help for his fellowmen who are in need.

You asked in your letter how I can suggest the expenditure of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this earth are starving to death.

I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!”

In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible; however, I believe, like many of my friends, that traveling to the moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

Before trying to describe in more detail how our space program is contributing to the solution of our earthly problems, I would like to relate briefly a supposedly true story which may help support the argument.

About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently.

One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory.

He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes; and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects. The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification and which he had never seen before.

He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. “We are suffering from this plague,” they said, “while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!”

But the count remained firm. “I give you as much as I can afford,” he said, “but I also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!”

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

The situation which we are facing today is similar in many respects. The President of the United States is spending about $200 billion in his yearly budget. This money goes to health, education, welfare, urban renewal, highways, transportation, foreign aid, defense, conservation, science, agriculture and many installations inside and outside the country.

About 1.6 per cent of this national budget was allocated to space exploration this year. The space program includes Project Apollo, and many other smaller projects in space physics, space astronomy, space biology, planetary projects, earth resources projects, and space engineering.

To make this expenditure for the space program possible, the average American taxpayer with $10,000 income per year is paying about 30 tax dollars for space.

The rest of his income, $9,970, remains for his subsistence, his recreation, his savings, his taxes and all his other expenditures.

You will probably ask now: “Why don’t you take 5 or 3 or 1 dollar out of the 30 space dollars which the average American taxpayer is paying and send these dollars to the hungry children?”

To answer this question, I have to explain briefly how the economy of this country works. The situation is very similar in other countries.

The government consists of a number of departments (Interior; Justice; Health, Education and Welfare; Transportation; Defense; and others), and of bureaus (National Science Foundation; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; and others).

All of them prepare their yearly budgets according to their assigned missions, and each of them must defend its budget against extremely severe screening by congressional committees, and against heavy pressure for economy from the Bureau of the Budget and the President. When the funds are finally appropriated by Congress, they can be spent only for the line items specified and approved in the budget.

The budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, naturally, can contain only items directly related to aeronautics and space. If this budget were not approved by Congress, the funds proposed for it would not be available for something else; they would simply not be levied from the taxpayer, unless one of the other budgets had obtained approval for a specific increase which would then absorb the funds not spent for space.

You may realize from this brief discourse that support for hungry children, or rather a support in addition to what the United States is already contributing to this very worthy cause in the form of foreign aid, can be obtained only if the appropriate department submits a budget line item for this purpose and if this line item is then approved by Congress.

You may ask now whether I personally would be in favor of such a move by our government. My answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, I would not mind it at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children wherever they may live.

I know that all of my friends feel the same way; however, we could not bring such a program to life merely by desisting from making plans for voyages to Mars. On the contrary, I even believe that by working for the space program I can make some contribution to the relief and eventual solution of such grave problems as poverty and hunger on earth.

Basic to the hunger problem are two functions: the production of food and distribution of food. Food production by agriculture, cattle ranching, ocean fishing and other large scale operations is efficient in some parts of the world, but drastically deficient in many others.

For example, large areas of land could be utilized far better if efficient methods of watershed control, fertilizer use, weather forecasting, fertility assessment, plantation programming, field selection, planting habits, timing of cultivation, crop survey and harvest planning were applied.

The best tool for the improvement of all these functions, undoubtedly, is the artificial earth satellite. Circling the globe at a high altitude, it can screen wide areas of land within a short time; it can observe and measure a large variety of factors indicating the status and conditions of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall, snow cover, etc., and it can radio this information to ground stations for appropriate use.

It has been estimated that even a modest system of earth satellites equipped with earth resources sensors, working within a program for worldwide agricultural improvement, will increase the yearly crops by an equivalent of many billions of dollars.

The distribution of the food to the needy is a completely different problem. The question is not so much one of shipping volume; it is one of international cooperation.

The ruler of a small nation may feel very uneasy about the prospects of having large quantities of food shipped into his country by a large nation, simply because he fears that along with the food there may also be an import of influence and foreign power.

Efficient relief from hunger, I am afraid, will not come before the boundaries between nations have become less divisive than they are today.

I do not believe that space flight will accomplish this miracle overnight; however, the space program is certainly among the most promising and powerful agents working in this direction.

Let me only remind you of the recent near-tragedy of Apollo 13. When the time of the crucial reentry of the astronauts approached, the Soviet Union discontinued all Russian radio transmissions in the frequency bands used by the Apollo Project in order to avoid any possible interference, and Russian ships stationed themselves in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans in case an emergency rescue would become necessary.

Had the astronaut capsule touched down near a Russian ship, the Russians would undoubtedly have expended as much care and effort in their rescue as if Russian cosmonauts had returned from a space trip.

If Russian space travelers should ever be in a similar emergency situation, Americans would do the same, without any doubt.

Higher food production, through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on earth.

I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-traveling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering.

The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new materials and methods, to invent better technical systems, to improve manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for applications to earth-bound technologies. Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools for everyday life.

Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-traveling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients.

The answer is simply: significant progress in the solution of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.

Space flight, without any doubt, is playing exactly this role. The voyage to Mars will certainly not be a direct source of food for the hungry; however, it will lead to so many new technologies and capabilities that the spinoffs from this project alone will be worth many times the cost of its implementation.

Besides the need for new technologies, there is a continuing great need for new basic knowledge in the sciences if we wish to improve the conditions of human life on earth.

We need more knowledge in physics and chemistry, in biology and physiology, and very particularly in medicine to cope with all these problems which threaten man’s life: hunger, disease, contamination of food and water, pollution of the environment.

We need more young men and women who choose science as a career, and we need better support for those scientists who have the talent and the determination to engage in fruitful research work.

Challenging research objectives must be available, and sufficient support for research projects must be provided. Again, the space program with its wonderful opportunities to engage in truly magnificent research studies of the moon and planets, of physics and astronomy, of biology and medicine, is an almost ideal catalyst which induces the reaction between the motivation for scientific work, opportunities to observe exciting phenomena of nature, and material support needed to carry out the research effort.

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible, and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 per cent of the total national budget and less than one-third of 1 per cent of the gross national product.

As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity. In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-traveling space ships! This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

Although our space program seems to lead us away from our earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets and the stars, I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our earth.

It will become a better earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our earth, of life, and of man.

The photograph which I enclose with this letter shows a view of our earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968.

Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one.

It opened our eyes to the fact that our earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space.

Never before did so many people recognize how limited our earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance.

Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder, warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times: pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation.

It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us the first good look at our own planet.

Very fortunately, though, the space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves; it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence.

What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said:

“I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.”

My very best wishes will always be with you and with your children. Very Sincerely Yours, Ernst Stuhlinger.


11 thoughts on “Why Waste Resources on Space? The Value of Sending A Car into Space on the Falcon Heavy

  1. Lots of money is spent on lots of things whether it be ultra expensive military systems of dubious utilization or zillionaires spending money on gillion dollar yachts. But spend a fraction on “The Space Program” (either govt or commercial) and people cry “think of the children!”

    I guess need the space program to illustrate problems on earth otherwise some of these issues will be ignored. Kind of like when Dennis Tito purchased a seat on Soyuz to spend a week on ISS. Some cry foul because he is not a “real” astronaut or cosmonaut. However, his trip illustrated there is a space station to many who were not aware it was in orbit.

  2. I think Ernst Stuhlinger makes a good argument.
    But fundamentally, NASA needs to explore the Moon and Mars, rather
    then plan for it, and go no where.
    So in general, good, but details matter.
    I don’t think the war on Poverty – though ill conceived and basically bullshit
    had much effect upon NASA funding. Whereas I have different opinion about
    global warming and huge waste of time and money that was wasted on that pseudo
    science. But even though global warming efforts had some effects on NASA’s funding,
    I think at fundamental level is was still mostly NASA fault for it’s failure to explore
    space. And would narrow it down to NASA trying to get more money rather than to do
    the job with the billions of dollars given to it. Or NASA is swayed too much by pork and
    hope of pork.
    But if want to compare say Energy Dept with NASA, I think NASA was better.
    Or Energy dept also could done something with billions of dollars provided to it, and
    it was a worse failure.
    I tend to think government funding of science, doesn’t work very well- it’s difficult
    to do successful in terms managing such vague things. I think easier for government
    to manage exploration projects and I think exploration has more bang for the buck.

    The exploration of the Moon related to Apollo program, has had profound effect upon
    science. This exploration of the Moon wasn’t science and it wasn’t really wasn’t focus upon or about exploration.
    Apollo was a stunt. It was PR for cold war. And it was very cheap PR stunt- a bargain.
    And in terms of managing the PR- it was poorly done. Or it wasn’t the skill of PR which made it great PR.
    But a very important aspect is they were very successfully in terms safely sending crew to the Moon and getting them back to Earth- impressive in terms of the pilots and the engineering work of the machines.
    Despite what some pilots said or joked about in terms of the spacecraft being done by the lowest bidder.
    I think the basic failure of NASA was due the failure think that there was anything worth exploring in space- going into space was too expensive for space to have practical use.
    Which is true if you think it’s up to some kind government bureaucracy to do the impossible- mine moon or settle Mars

    1. It was a failure of imagination by the political forces of the day (LBJ, Kennedy [Ted], Mondale and the rest. The views expressed in the linked article were ascendant 50 years ago. Well 50 years later we still have the same problems, and poverty has not decreased. This proves GE Chairman Ralph Cordiner right on the money when he foresaw what would happen if we went this way, way back in 1960.

  3. Howdy from the Cold Frozen North where we like manmade global warming due to CO2 emissions (good for the greenhouse) a lot, especially in February –

    In some ways, Apollo was a sporting event, direct competition between the US & the USSR. Clausewitz observed that “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” So was Apollo. And in a lot of ways, so were the Olympics until 1990. Either and both were much, much less expensive than direct, open hostilities.

    I think the question needs to be broken into two pieces – Why to go? Who pays for it?
    The first part is some combination of figuring out how our neighborhood (the solar system) works, identifying, opening, and moving into a frontier, somewhere we’ve never been. Add to that, the willingness of some, to choose to explore, experience, and eventually permanently move into the frontier.

    Frontiers are interesting and powerful things. They evoke both the best and the worst of humanity. They require new perspectives, news ways of approaching and solving problems, and most importantly new solutions. Every single one of those new perspectives and new solutions are at some level applicable here at home. Some may trigger new ways to address and solve old, chronic problems.

    The more that we know about how our neighborhood works, the more we know about the forces that created this earth and the better we can understand how this planet works, why it works the way it does, and figure out how to be the best possible stewards of the life upon it.

    Don’t forget that the earth also sits in the middle of what can best be described as a shooting gallery. We see chunks of rock and ice fly by all the time. Occasionally, their orbits intersect that of this planet, and we end up with explosions and holes in the ground. It is better to know the threat so that we can deal with it beforehand.

    As to the economics question of who pays for exploration and the move into the solar system and what that money ought to be spent upon, we are immediately back to the question of getting to know our neighborhood. There ought to be some level of budget by governments at all levels spent on that.

    The more expensive question of moving into space to stay ought to be led by the private sector, using the individual monies of investors, true believers, and those who want to reach out and do extreme things elsewhere. The use of that money should never be in question, as it does not belong to you or any individual or collective government.

    One of the great things we mostly have is the freedom to make choices and decisions. Some choose to look inwards or backwards in time. Some choose to look outward and into the future. Both choices should be celebrated and encouraged. One is not better than the other. Rather, both are different sides to the same coin, and work together to incrementally improve our lives individually and collectively.

    So, if the writer of the Guardian article chooses not to look outwards, that is his choice. He ought not to choose to rail against those that do, especially if it is coming out of their own pocket, as he is making the essential argument that all of us heard as kids: You can’t have nice things until you clean up your room.

    Most of us eventually learn how to do both. And we will with our move into the frontier of the solar system. Cheers –

  4. We have all answered this question being space fans or proponents. My usual answer is.

    In 6000 years of recorded human history, we have not solved our problems. Perhaps with a change of venue, we can find some answers.

    I believe we should stop waiting on the government to save us, and go save ourselves. Musk and Bezos are doing it right. If only Zubrin had marshaled the Mars Firsters long ago and crowd sourced his own space program long ago. We could be to the stars by now. 10 million space fans donating $100 a year could give you a $1b per year space program budget. Musk has done more with less.

    We need a dynamic Genghis Khan of space to unite the warring tribes of Mars, Moon, Venus, Phobos, and give them one direction. By doing that, we could all reach the stars.

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