Finances major importance for NASA and US military

This past week, NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, successfully attempted its first test drive, three weeks after its wildly exciting, highly experimental landing. NASA took the opportunity to announce another trip to Mars with InSight, a new craft designed to study the Martian core.

On Earth, the 2,000th United States soldier was killed in Afghanistan.

In experiencing these two historic moments, I cannot help but be drawn to the disparity between the cost of the space program and what we spend on defense in the United States.

NASA received $18.7 billion for their 2012 budget. In contrast, $663 billion was allocated to military spending in 2009. The Mars rover cost $2.5 billion, the shuttle program $209 billion, whereas the combined wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost $3.7 trillion, over $12,000 per person.

Looking merely at the monetary cost of these programs, however, provides a disservice to them both. So too must we look at what we buy with that money.

First, investigate the cost of life associated with each program. Since the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 6,590 soldiers have died, an average of 50 soldiers a month. In that same time, from 2001 to the present, six astronauts have died. Looking back over the existence of both programs, NASA has lost 22 astronauts in the 54 years since its conception. During Vietnam, the United States military lost 26 soldiers a day.

Now, clearly it’s unfair to limit analysis to death toll only. One may argue that to be a soldier is a lot more dangerous than to be an astronaut, though both live in a perpetual state of danger, one from weapons and one from the air. Let’s then consider another non-monetary cost.

The military, apart from a collection of new weapons, has also developed many of the items used everyday by civilians: canned food, margarine, tissues, the microwave, the Slinky, the Internet. NASA too has contributed to the ease of everyday civilian life: invisible braces, scratch-resistant lenses, cordless tools, water filters, memory foam, long-distance communication.

Clearly both of these organizations have purposes and influences beyond the established one. They contribute to how we work in the world, how we view the world, how we communicate across the world and how we get our information. Information is another important cost that must be considered when looking at both military spending and spending for space exploration. With the money we spend on both of them, the millions, billions, trillions of dollars, what do we get for that money?

Apart from the televised conflicts our military is involved in, the billions spent on the defense department allow for covert operations purely to find information. Information gathered under such circumstances has the ability to not only increase safety and stability worldwide, but improve global relations. It allows the United States to back rebellions such as those in present-day Syria, and to support dictatorships such as those of 1983-Saddam Hussein, to arm drug dealers in Mexico and to even overthrow dictators like Muammar Gadhafi.

When we look at the knowledge the space program accrues, we look at billions of years of history, images sparkling back through the lens of the Hubble Space Telescope. Our exploration into distant planets, solar systems and galaxies, help uncover the make-up of our own planet and ourselves, and answer the question “Why are we here?”

When all of these factors are taken into account, a cost-benefit analysis of where the majority of our spending should go makes a pretty obvious argument in favor of NASA. To be clear, I am not advocating for a removal of our military or of the defense department; I merely want to reevaluate how we spend our money. The United States spends more on its military than the next 19 highest-spending nations combined, and while we do invest in our space program, it is easy to imagine how much more could be accomplished if, perhaps, that spending were increased. We may find our televisions flooded with images of extraterrestrial life, rather than those of flag-draped coffins.

_Sarah is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at [email protected]_