Why are we not in Space yet?
A few weeks ago, I came across a reddit thread asking “If the US had spent as much on NASA as we did on military, where would we be today?“. The highest rated answer was given by a NASA Engineer with more of 25 years of experience:
The main thing that needs to be understood in this hypothetical scenario is the incredible magnitude of money we’re talking about. A lot of the general public seem to think that NASA gets a large portion of the federal budget. It doesn’t. The current allocation (FY13) is around .45% of the federal budget. To make sure that is clear: we’re talking less than one half of one cent on the dollar. At it’s peak funding in the mid-1960’s, it rose only to around 4% (e.g. 4 cents on the dollar).
In contrast, the U.S. military currently consumes around 20% of the federal budget, and, at times, has even been higher. However, it’s difficult sometimes to determine where to draw the line. For example, part of the NSA has a military support role, but they’re not in the DoD budget. This applies to other areas as well; NRO, DoE, etc. But even you only consider the lower end numbers, the amount of difference in funding is vast. Almost incredibly-difficult-to-contemplate vast.
With that context, it’s pretty easy to imagine that the Saturn V production line not only wouldn’t have stopped when it did, but would have been vastly increased, and follow-on development would have resulted in larger and more efficient rocket designs. In fact, multiple lines of Shuttle-type vehicles for crew and huge cargo boosters would probably have resulted with capability for launches every few days. Research and eventual on-orbit nuclear-powered rockets would have followed, and with that, the space frontier would have totally opened up. By now, ~40 years later, at minimum we would have cities on the moon (not outposts or bases, I mean CITIES, with thousands of people living there), a scientific base or two on Mars, and would be witnessing the early exploration of the Jovian moons (in particular Europa). I can’t speak to the scientific side very much, but given that the military has put up a Hubble Space Telescope quality spy satellite every couple of years for the past couple of decades, I think it’s pretty easy to conclude that our knowledge of the universe would also be vastly increased.
Again, these are just the obvious things. Technology development tends to feed on itself and grow in non-linear ways, so the investment of that magnitude of money would also create things that are difficult to envision and predict.
In other words, if the US had spent as much on NASA as it did on military, as the original question enquired, there is no doubt that we would already be a space-traveling civilization. Most certainly still confined to our solar system but space-traveling nonetheless (not just space-hovering in one single, tiny space-station). And even if we started only now, it would possibly still enable our own generation would to set foot onto moon within our lifetime.
But as appealing as this idea might sound, it certainly raises questions of priority to any conscientious person. Because if the military budget was to be allocated to a better cause, surely the eradication of global poverty and needless suffering would and should have priority over space exploration. But let’s have a look at the numbers.
According to SIPRI, the US military was allocated something like $682 billion — which is in fact quite a substantial amount. And a recent Oxfam report (based on research by the Brookings institute) calculated that the annual income of the richest 100 people in the world alone ($240 billion) would be enough to end global poverty four times over — essentially stating that $66 billion would suffice to raise everyone above the $1.25 a day poverty line worldwide. So in other words, the US Military budget, which is more than three times the annual income of the top 100 would be enough to end world poverty more than 10 times over.
So this could mean that the end of world poverty and space exploration need not necessarily be mutually exclusive. NASA’s current budget is c.a. 18 billion. So if the US were to allocate, say, only 90% not 100% of the military budget to the eradication of poverty, it could still quadruple NASA’s budget and thereby greatly improve scientific progress and (possibly) give coming generations something to dream about.
And this calculation includes only the US military budget. If we were to rid all of our global societies of military spending, a whooping $1.753 trillion would be freed up for better use. Even more if we reallocated some of the unfairly distributed capital in the hands of global plutocrats (e.g. the earlier mentioned top 100 richest people).
The point is, we could be living in a world where not only does no one have to starve, but where everyone could realistically dream about living on the Moon or on Mars one day. Where, on a clear night, one could gaze up and see the lights of Moon-City I shine down. But in reality we have this. A world filled to the brim with suffering, starvation and pain. A world where old men send those who should be looking to the stars to fight wars over piteous reasons like national borders, natural resources, religious beliefs or other equally meaningless ideas of the past.
15 years ago, my favourite duvet cover was the one with a space shuttle on it. I watched Star Trek every day and I felt like I had reason to dream. I fear, by the time my nieces and nephews are teenagers in 5-10 years, they will have much less reason to dream than the last few generations had. And that is not just personally saddening but significant to the advancement of human civilisation.
Or in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson: