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Space exploration ROI (return on investment) sucks. Exploration doesn’t make money, it costs money. It’s not a place for private business. If the question of space exploration is, “What’s in it for me?” you’re asking the wrong question. Space exploration isn’t profitable, but it is transformative.

Apollo Saturn V

The five massive Rocketdyne F-1 engines of the Apollo Saturn V first stage booster. Twice the lift of SpaceX’s 27-engine Falcon Heavy

Exploration Creates Economic Growth

In the 15th century, when the government of Spain financed Columbus to explore a new trade route to the markets in Asia, he discovered the Caribbean. He brought back a few captured natives from the Bahamas, some gold, and a few birds. It didn’t pay for the cost of the voyage.

But what came next transformed Spain and Europe. The year of the discovery of the Americas (1492) is considered the start of the Golden Age of Spain. After Columbus first voyage to the new world, Spain continued with more voyages, and eventually the full exploitation of Central and South America. Most historians focus on the resources that were returned to Spain, but what happened at home was even more important. 

Shipbuilding entered a new phase of design and construction. Jobs at home created a new wealth for the working class. Craftsmen, as well as sailors, became vital to the needs of the Age of Discovery. That new wealth created secondary jobs, along with new businesses selling imported goods. All of this economic growth was a direct result of the exploration pushed forward by the government of Spain.

Exploration created massive economic growth for decades, but exploration didn’t give an immediate ROI for Spain.

The Model Space Program

Not all space programs are successful. The Soviet space program became mired in conflicts between good science and engineering versus political priorities. The administration was pushed into risky decisions and failure was not without punishment. In addition, new technology was considered a State secret so the development of commercial uses was not an option.

The United States approach for the space program was for the use of non-military government oversight of private contractors. The government remained accountable to the voters, which kept both the government and their contractors in a stable environment for decision making.

The result was a massive increase in highly-skilled, well-paid jobs that created a new wealth for the middle class. Space exploration supercharged the United States economy and created new technology that continued to develop for decades after the Apollo program ended. It was the model space exploration program.

A Failure of Vision

Once the United States had landed on the Moon conservatives and liberals united to kill the space program. Liberals could only see the money being spent to explore space as money that could have been used to help the poor. Conservatives could only see money not going into their pockets. As it would turn out, both viewpoints were flawed.

Money spent on for space exploration created new, high paying jobs that created a need for improved education and pumped billions of dollars into the economy that created new tax revenue that could be used for government programs to help the poor engage in the new economy.

The flood of new money into the economy helped small companies grow dramatically while increasing profits. It didn’t result in the wealthy becoming dramatically richer, but it did create prosperity that helped everyone.

Missing Greatness

Today the United States is wading in a stagnant economy. Wages aren’t growing as fast as prices are rising. The available jobs pay so poorly that they aren’t worth the cost of working them. If we are missing greatness, it is because we are killing our economy with a focus on profit for a few.

The goal of private business is never to create jobs, nor is it to create high paying jobs. Jobs are created when business has been given a mission to accomplish something. Giving tax breaks does not give business a reason to create more jobs, nor pay employees more.

However, if our country made a serious commitment to the goal of expanding space exploration, and funded it with the tax breaks we are giving billionaires, we would see our economy transformed. It is that simple.