In case you haven’t read anything about the U.S. national debt lately, it’s now more than $15.5 trillion. Surely, a rather large chorus of Americans says, we can’t afford to explore space or invest in exploration and education because that would only add to this imposing sum. If someone’s credit card balance amounted to roughly five times his or her annual income, you wouldn’t tell this person to go out and shop more, right? Why not do what we can and pay down the debt before China comes knocking at our doors and looking for payment on all that credit they extended to us, then with a lighter balance sheet, we can look forward to space, education, and the needed upgrades to our infrastructure to keep adhering to First World standards? Doesn’t this sound logical, well thought out, and fiscally conservative and considerate? Certainly does to me, and it would be great advice to follow if it wasn’t almost completely wrong about everything related to space, mathematically and financially, as well as strategically. It all starts with the simple fact that a national debt is not like a credit card balance.
Basically, the national debt of an advanced country consists of securities, bonds, and notes which mature at a predetermined rate, sort of how large corporations raise money without issuing additional stock. Owners hold these notes for a set number of years and if they really need money now, they sell them to someone because that’s how the process works. They don’t actually own a piece of a government and can’t simply repossess an island or a city if they don’t get paid on time, which is why the notion of China trying to collect on the 8% of U.S. foreign debt it holds at some point in the near future is firmly in the domain of populist alarmism and political cartoons, also ignoring that to keep it’s currency undervalued and its exports cheap, it has to hold on to a very large pile of dollars. And notice the foreign part of that debt holding. That’s important. About half of the national debt is held by Americans and the payments on the treasury notes are due to American citizens, banks, and a variety of investment firms which use them to lower the volatility and tax liabilities of their clients’ portfolios. So the sum we owe to foreign banks and treasuries is a lot lower than many people assume although yes, huge debts and yawning deficits are major problems which have to be addressed, but not by neglecting space.
Here’s where a little simple math goes a long way. Let’s say we wanted to create another space program on a scale similar to that of Apollo and with greater ambition. In today’s dollars, that would cost us $150 billion, just to pick the closest round number. But when the proposal reaches Congress, the deficit hawks are not having any of it because it would add to the national debt over the next five to ten years assuming no change in taxes, tax receipts, the economy, or government spending habits. They proceed to scuttle this plan in order to save a paltry 0.97% addition to the debt amortized over years of research that would generate new technologies, new ideas, new opportunities, and thousands of high paying jobs which yield more tax receipts and stimulate the economies of the cities where these workers would be employed. That, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much the textbook definition of being penny wise but pound foolish. Of course the fact that many Americans haven’t a clue of just how little we spend on space in general is a major political roadblock in and of itself, however, to cut off research and development of technologies we need and want just to score a few cheap points and save what amounts to a rounding error in the government ledger is nothing short of a financial travesty.
You may think that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s advocacy of doubling NASA’s budget to help finance new ambitious missions and boost investment in space startups like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, may sound indulgent, but it actually makes good fiscal sense. In terms of providing the biggest bang for the buck, investment in research and technology is about as good as you can get. Investments in computing, infrastructure, and space during the 1950s and 1960s helped cement the United States’ standing as a superpower by giving its companies a steady supply of spinoffs on which to capitalize, bolstering new industries, and providing a robust and secure environment in which to operate, as well as a highly educated workforce available for hire. The research into a robust communication protocol model called TCP/IP helped generate literally trillions of dollars in wealth over the last two decades and the billions sunk into medicine produced the modern version of germ theory we can credit with helping us double the average human lifespan within two generations. Investments in physics and space have given us GPS, orbiting communication networks, and new materials for electronics. Do we really want to say no to expanding on all that as not to boost the debt by a fraction of a fraction of a percent?
[ illustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren ]