If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, maybe the same holds true when influencing his mind. That’s one of the paths Dr. Phil Metzger took when he read yet another writer dismissing space exploration as a waste of time and money.
“The cost of the food that Americans throw away every year is 31 times more than all the funding we give to NASA—31 times,” he said.
The latest flashpoint came in an opinion piece in The Guardian with the giveaway title, “Revive the US space program? How about not.”
“I disagree with the writer’s ridiculous call to action, to reduce the civilian space program as a way to rectify injustice and poverty,” Metzger said. “We can do better promoting space and promoting justice in all areas of life, but pointing that out doesn’t make his main idea any less silly.”
Metzger is a planetary physicist with the Planetary Science faculty at the University of Central Florida, developing what he calls “Economic Planetary Science” to help humanity’s expansion beyond Earth. He has 30 years’ experience at NASA first as an engineer and then as a physicist, developing and operating spaceflight technologies.
He co-founded the NASA KSC Swamp Works, a research and development lab modeled after the Skunkworks and implementing innovation practices borrowed from Silicon Valley. The Swamp Works focuses on technologies for planetary surfaces including mining, manufacturing and construction using space resources.
Informing the Uninformed
“Since this Guardian writer has recycled the super-uninformed claim ‘we ought to be spending the money on Earth instead,’ it is now time to recycle the informed responses,” Metzger said. “Hardly any money is spent on space. For example, the U.S. spends four times as much on tobacco as on space.
“U.S. consumers spend five times more on credit card interest and fees as we spend on NASA,” said. “Every year the U.S. spends $1.77 trillion on retail food, and about 30 to 40 percent is thrown away, which is equal to 31 times the amount we spend on NASA.”
He cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that show every year the United States spends 12.5 times as much on alcoholic drinks as the country does on NASA—and 77 percent of that is for binge drinking.
“In other words, the U.S. spends 10 times as much on binge drinking as we do on NASA,” Metzger said. “NASA makes you feel better in the morning, by the way.”
Those are some of many examples he could highlight to show “what a trivial amount of money the U.S. citizenry invests in space.”
“The space program pays back gigantic benefits for that small investment,” Metzger said. “The tech advances are so breathtaking it is hard to even begin listing them.
“From medical advances to weather observation capability, pure science, fluid dynamics, electronics, computing, on and on,” he said. “This will continue throughout the Artemis program, Mars exploration and so on.”
Another technology byproduct is a ventricular assist device.
In addition, a 2013 report gives an overview of socio-economic benefits of NASA.
Improving On a Treaty
“The space program makes you safer than you know,” Metzger said. “The potential of weapons in space is destabilizing and could result in nuclear war. The Outer Space Treaty tries to prevent that, but it is a weak treaty. It allows any country to get out with just a one-year notice.
“That was the strongest treaty we could negotiate with the Soviet Union in the 1950s,” he said. “So, any country that thinks they will get an advantage by putting nukes in space can send a letter to The Hague, and one year later they can do so legally—or claim territory on the moon.”
Conversely, the U.S. civilian space program through NASA is intended to make the Outer Space Treaty stronger.
“The idea is that we prove our strong capability in space, year by year without end,” Metzger said. “Then no hostile country will think they can gain military advantage by withdrawing from the treaty.
“In other words, the space program is a form of ‘geopolitical signalling’ to help keep the world safe from nuclear war,” he said. “If you realize how weak the treaty is—and how destabilizing space can be—you will never again question the trivial amount of money that we put into NASA.”
Thinking Off Kilter
Metzger comes back to assailing arguments made from distorted viewpoints.
“That’s another reason this Guardian article is so ridiculous,” he said. “By taxing the U.S. citizenry just one-10th the amount spent on binge drinking—not to mention all the other frivolous things—NASA provides unfathomable benefit to the U.S. and to the world.
“If we gave up the unfathomable benefits of NASA, the cost savings would make almost no impact on the problems like poverty that the article discusses,” Metzger said. “That’s because the money is trivial compared to what we do spend on poverty. This lack of perspective is staggering.”
His most important point is the future trajectory of the world.
“The author of the piece seems ignorant about the utter revolution in space access—and how it is nowhere near finished yet—so humanity’s future will be even more about space,” Metzger said.
“Couple the globally easier and cheaper access to space with other tech revolutions—robotics and autonomy—plus the growing environmental impact of industry on our planet,” he said. “It is inescapable that industry will be driven off-Earth into space during this current century.”
The transition could be a bumpy ride.
“Like all tech advances and like all economic revolutions, this offers a mixture of enormous benefit and tremendous threat,” Metzger said. “Facing the real politics of a geopolitically fractured globe, there is no realistic option to keep this genie in the bottle, even if it were desirable.”
Storms On the Horizon
His crystal ball foretells specific threats brewing.
“Autonomous industry in space could lead to enormous wealth concentration that could threaten democracy,” Metzger said. “It could create geopolitical winners and losers that could destabilize the globe and result in fascist hegemony or who knows what.
“It is hard for private individuals—including underrepresented minorities, economically disadvantaged, people in poorer nations—to participate in space,” he said. “So, the coming economic revolution will bake in and amplify all social injustices on Earth unless we are proactive.”
Even if that comes to pass, doom and gloom need not prevail.
“On the positive side, putting industry outside this most special of all planets—the Earth—will unburden the environment by at least a factor of two to four by the end of the century, in my opinion.” Metzger said. “That will give us the ability to do amazing things in science, medicine and overall civilization.
“Currently, what we imagine we can do in our civilization is languishing in a mental jail,” he said. “Our collective imagination is imprisoned by the scale of a planetary economy. We were born into these limits and don’t even know how to dream correctly about what lies outside.”
Power of Positive Outcomes
Metzger believes that just getting a glimpse of the possibilities already pays back enormous benefits.
“These include inspiring youth, making civilization optimistic and helping people see that life is not a zero-sum game so fighting is stupid,” he said.
“We are not bound to a planet,” Metzger said. “Therefore, fighting over the limited resources of Earth is stupid. Utterly stupid, because we could work together to create a much better future for all through space.”
That raises the question of who to trust the most to help lead the way.
“I would say NASA,” Metzger said. “It isn’t perfect, the product of an imperfect political system. Yet, in my opinion it is one of the best things humanity has done in centuries. So, the tiny amount we pay for Artemis and space is amazingly good.”