Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?

Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)
Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)

When times get tough, the world needs visionaries.

Visionaries find solutions, they invent systems and invoke change. One such figure in current events with a weight of 300 million people on his shoulders, is the new US President Barack Obama. His entire political campaign is based on bringing change to the USA (and the world), making him the most prominent political figure out there. Is he a visionary? Some would argue that he is, others would say that history will decide that point. I’m on the fence as to whether Obama will find historic solutions to these seemingly insurmountable global crises. But the thing I admire about the new US President is that he is a strong leader, and sometimes, that is all a country needs to pull itself from the precipice and back to prosperity.

So, the Obama-backed $800+ billion economic stimulus package is currently pumping through the system to eventually be divvied up and sent to areas of the economy that need to be reinvigorated. In principal, it’s a good idea. But what if it fails? Unfortunately there’s an awful lot more riding on Obama’s shoulders than 300 million hopes; $800 billion of their taxes will be keeping the new President awake until the early hours. If this all goes right, Barack Obama will go down as one of history’s visionaries; if it all goes wrong… well, let’s just not go there for the time being

There will be critics of any economic bailout, and others who think there are better options. Robert Zubrin, founder and President of the Mars Society, has come forward with his suggestions to aid economic recovery…

President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in 1962
President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in 1962

Space, a feel-good pill for the economy

Space stimulates more than the imagination of over-active teenagers. It can boost the economy, really. Let’s look very briefly at what history has taught us. Back in 1962, President Kennedy outlined his vision for the future of US manned spaceflight. For now, let’s forget the Soviet Union, Cuba and nuclear weapons, I’ll get back to that bit in a minute.

Kennedy did his fantastic, stirring speech at Rice University, Houston about the challenge of landing man on the Moon and that the US would step up to the plate and “do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It was a moment that defined the Space Race, it was a moment that laid the foundations of the Apollo Program and manned spaceflight as we know it.

There’s no better example about how a space programme can influence a nation’s economy, the Apollo missions stimulated economic growth, they generated huge political strength, they created a whole generation of highly skilled engineers, scientists and specialists, they even motivated the educational system, enriching the children of the day. If you ever needed an all-in-one stimulus package, the Apollo Program was it.

However, science was not the motivating factor behind the billions of dollars ploughed into the decade-long quest to land Americans on the Moon. The basic human desire to explore uncharted waters (space) wasn’t even the reason, although it did help. The reason why President Kennedy got the lunar plan passed by Congress was that it was a feasible programme that the US could complete, beating the Soviet Union, gaining a strategic advantage in space.

The Soviet space program up to that point had beaten the US into orbit (with Sputnik 1), and then they put Yuri Gagarin into space a month before the US attempt. President Kennedy needed to create a trump card, and fast. However, it wasn’t only space that was causing concern. The botched attempt at overthrowing the Soviet-backed Cuban government at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 was also raw in the US government mindset. The following year, the Cuban Missile Crisis intensified the threat of nuclear attrition. The Cold War was heating up.

A Martian stimulus?

OK, so the Apollo missions certainly boosted the US economy, education, quality of workforce and generally engaged the nation. However, that wasn’t the motivating factor, it was a nice side-effect. What it really did was to beat the Soviet Union, it served as a massive political and strategic advantage to the US. However, it was short lived.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969 (NASA)
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969 (NASA)

With the mission complete, NASA fell foul of budget cuts, cancelling the last few lunar missions. The Apollo Program had ended by 1972 and the US did not have a manned space vehicle until the first Space Shuttle launched in 1981. The Soviet Union continued to access space throughout this US manned spaceflight gap. Admittedly a cosmonaut never set foot on the Moon, but cosmonauts continue to dominate the flight schedule of Earth orbit to this day.

Yesterday, Robert Zubrin, a visionary in his own right, came forward with his thoughts about the $800+ billion economic stimulation package. And credit where credit is due, he made some good points. To get the US out of this economic black-spot, Zubrin suggested the following measures:

  • “Make all down payments on house purchases tax-deductible.” Effect: Housing market stimulation, more home owners, increased spending.
  • “Pass a law requiring that all new cars sold in the U.S. be flex-fueled.” Effect: A reduction in dependence on foreign oil, increased competition, lower oil prices, more biofuels.
  • “Initiate a program to send humans to Mars within eight years.” Effect: Remember the Apollo era? This will be even better!

It all sounds reasonable enough. Making down payments on houses tax-deductible would be nice, perhaps that might even save the government some money in the long run whilst loosening the noose around the mortgage situation (even if it doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem, but that’s for housing experts to fight over). The biofuel argument, again good, but what would this do to other markets, such as farming and food? Unless there are plans to ship vast quantities of biofuel from around the world, this could solve one issue but damage a whole other US industry. I’m no economist, but I can see the advantages and disadvantaged to what Zubrin is saying.

But then there’s Mars. Fantastic idea

if we were still in the 1960’s.

A Chinese threat? Apollo 2.0?

Unfortunately, it is rare that billions of dollars are invested into single space projects. In the early 1960’s the decision to go to the Moon was not based on scientific curiosity, it was based on political and strategic ideals. The Apollo Program served a purpose. Once that purpose was fulfilled, NASA was reigned back in and marginalized. Fortunately, launching man to the Moon had some superb benefits for the economy, but if it wasn’t for the Cold War and resulting Space Race, none of it would have happened. A disproportionate amount of investment was required to beat the Soviet Union (according to Zubrin, $100 billion in today’s money). $100 billion is a small price to pay to beat another superpower at their own game. $100 billion is the entire NASA budget for a decade.

The Constellation's Ares I on the launchpad (NASA)
The Constellation's Ares I on the launchpad (NASA)

For NASA to spend eight years on a manned Mars program would cost a lot more than the Apollo Program (in real terms). There would need to be a huge injection of NASA funds to juggle the Mars project as well as the other science that is being done. But this is what Zubrin is saying, we need to invest heavily in a Mars space programme and reap the economic benefits. Unfortunately, there is little chance the idea will be entertained as there are other, less radical ways to aid the economy without depending on flying to another planet.

So far, the Constellation Program promises to get man to Mars… eventually (although this is a very optimistic goal), so the plan isn’t going to deviate too much from this path for the time being.

Unless China is going to start making some huge strides in space-based technology any time soon, we cannot expect President Obama to create an economic stimulus package based on a disproportionate amount of space funding. Even if China did start to threaten the US dominance in space, I suspect taikonauts would need to set up home on the Moon before any kind of emergency reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs.

I really like what Robert Zubrin is presenting, but I don’t think we’ll see many politicians spending much time on this proposition. However, I do hope it raises awareness for the funding shortfalls NASA is facing. Although commercial alternatives are out there, NASA science will remain critical to the advancement of mankind in space for many years to come, it would be a shame if the budget shrinks any more under the thickening cloud of recession. Counter-intuitively, more money needs to be invested, to aid economic recovery, but a Mars spaceship might be asking a little too much of the new administration.

Original source: Roll Call


17 thoughts on “Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?”

  1. FUCK THE MONEY. REINVENT THE WORLD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PUT HUMANITY AND DREAMS BEFORE MONEY. USE MONEY TO PURSUE DREAMS!!!!!!!!! Why cant we not reschedule the whole economic system and industry in the world to put it to work on conquering Mars!!!!!! set up competition to get there!!!!!!!!!! all of that will boost the world economy! like the days of the Old west conquest!!!!!!

  2. no one really wants to change teh world radically! everyone wants the slowly-resource-depleting, human-exploiting economy we have!!!!!!!!!!!
    Weapeons-led, Drug-trafficking-driven, corruption-led, all of the nations and all leaders whether from the centre, right or left side of political specter are SHITTING ON THE WORLD AND HUMANITY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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