The politics of space exploration

What’s the problem with the political staffers researching untapped votes in the electorate?Photo by chipdatajeffb from Flickr licensed under Creative Commons
Why they aren’t capitalising more on space? That’s ‘Space’ with a  capital ‘S’.

The prevalence of Space memes in popular culture

We all know about space, it’s the frontier meme that entire cable television channels are built around like the ‘Sci Fi’ channel, it’s the one that is the standard fare of blockbuster after blockbuster. 

“How do we reach 20-somethings?” pundits moan, “how can we get them out to vote?”

Want to guess what one of the most popular Twitter feeds was in May standing at 42 in Twitter’s rankings? It was the Mars Phoenix probe. The two Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity launched in 2003, are still driving around the Mars landscape today, more than 17 times their original expected lifespan, and in the week following their landing on Mars NASA’s website recorded 1.7 billion hits, eclipsing all records from previous NASA missions.

Consult the movie database IMDB.Com and you’ll find there are 2400 sci-fi movies that have been released over the last 10 years.  Hollywood has even produced two major blockbusters specifically dealing with a plot involving asteroids striking the earth, ‘Deep Impact’ and ‘Armageddon’.

Do a search on ‘McCain AND NASA’ and you get 4.24m results on Google. Do a search on ‘Obama AND NASA’ and you get 4.5m results. Just to put this in context a search on ‘McCain AND economics’ gets 6.5m results or ‘Obama AND economics’ gets 7.42m results.

Put simply the electorate out there has a huge interest in this subject. So you can’t say the worldwide audience hasn’t been well prepared for bold policy initiatives on space.

How much is being spent on Space by national governments

Whilst there is clearly a vote or 10 in space exploration it is also interesting that it is not taken more seriously on its own merits by politicians.

With world population having grown from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to an expected 8.9 billion people in 2050 and a range of non-resource related global risks from nuclear/biological to asteroid impacts, this is not just about getting votes from legions of devoted Star Trek fans.

Yet, US spending on space (probably one of the highest national budget allocations) represents just .6% of the national budget. The British National Space Centre, which actually has a budget cobbled together out of allocations from various other departmental budgets, has an annual budget of around £200 million pounds, compared to an estimated UK government budget of in excess of £500,000 million ponds or put it another way .04% of the UK budget is spent on space and the USA spends fifteen times the proportion of its national budget on space than Britain. 

On the surface it’s the Europeans who seem to take Space much more seriously: the European Space Agency, which is contributed to GDP-proportionally by EU member states, spends about €2.8 billion euros of its total budget of 116 billion euros, i.e. more than 2% of its total budget on space.

However, when you consider that 70% of EU funding comes from the member state allocations which represent just .73% of each member country’s gross national income, you can start to see in Europe too, that space exploration is nowhere in funding terms (admittedly this does not take into account what European national governments spend individually on space outside the ESA – in most cases not a lot). 

Let businesses fund Space exploration?

Some people argue that it’s not up to governments to fund space exploration. The private sector should do it.

Frankly it doesn’t seem worth spending a lot of time on this argument. For a start, if we’re talking about the implicit benefits of space colonization to the human race as a whole there’s just no property rights. Why would a corporation spend money on putting say a manned base on the moon when it’s not clear who owns the moon or the resources on it?

Exploration of this nature carries risk that is well outside the parameters of normal commercial returns with totally unmodel-able cash payoffs. It’s for this reason that the British Admiralty funded Cook’s expedition to Australia, or that the Spanish government of the time funded Columbus.

It’s obviously going to involve corporations in supplier roles and it is interesting the way that SpacEx has taken on the job of redesigning rockets to deal with the impact of the retirement of the space shuttle program on the space station, but at the moment serious space exploration and colonization does not have the commercial payoffs to attract businesses.

That is not to say that there is a long list of commercial products that have originated with space programs but at the moment it’s a bit like air: it’s of immense benefit to the human race but you can’t make a buck from it. 

Space exploration is one of the truly global unifying themes

There are also major benefits in terms of emphasizing the commonalities of nation states over their differences, because fundamentally it is a very harsh environment out there and public emphasis on Space would be a far better use of money than spending more on defense budgets.  There are so many problems to solve, ranging from radiation protection, to creating sealed sustainable habitats, that participating as a country doesn’t need to involve putting up rockets.

Would it be totally far-fetched to imagine a ‘Space Olympics’ that focused public attention on the challenges every four years in the spirit of international cooperation?

Looking at the level of interest (outside the realm of politics!) this is an Olympics I’d like to own the broadcasting rights for.

This article filed under the following 'Interest' categories (click category for more) Unanswerable questions

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Article posted by @Drivelry on October 12, 2008

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