Space Exploration Pays Off Here on Earth

space spinoffs
An infant blanket based on spacesuit design is helping new parents protect their babies. NASA/Embrace Innovations. 

Every so often someone asks the question, "What good does space exploration do for us here on Earth?" It's one that astronomers, astronauts, space engineers and teachers answer nearly every day.

It's simple: space exploration pays off in goods, technology, and paychecks. The work is done by people who are paid to do it here on Earth. The money they receive helps them buy food, get homes, cars, and clothing. They pay taxes in their communities, which helps keep schools going, roads paved, and other services that benefit a town or city. The money may be spent to send things "up there", but it gets spent "down here." It spreads out into the economy.

Another way to look at the "return on investment" for space exploration is that it helps pay the bills right here on the planet. Not only that but the products of space exploration range from the knowledge that gets taught to science research that benefits a wide variety of industries and technology (such as computers, medical devices, etc.) that are used here on Earth to make life better. It's really a win-win situation for everybody involved. 

What are Space Exploration Spin-offs?

The products of space exploration touch lives in more ways than people think. For example, anyone who has ever had a digital x-ray, or a mammogram, or a CAT scan, or been hooked up to a heart monitor, or had specialized heart surgery to clear blockages in their veins, they've benefited from technology first built for use in space. Medicine and medical tests and procedures are HUGE beneficiaries of space exploration technology and techniques. Mammograms to detect breast cancer are another good example.

Farming techniques, food production and the creation of new medicines are also impacted by space exploration technologies. This directly benefits all of us, whether we are food producers or simply food and medicine consumers. Each year NASA (and other space agencies) share their "spinoffs", reinforcing the very real role that they play in everyday lives.

Talk to the World, Thanks to Space Exploration

Cell phones are used all over Earth. They use\ processes and materials developed for space-age communication. They "talk" to GPS satellites circling our planet, giving location data. There are other satellites monitoring the Sun that warn scientists, astronauts, and satellite owners of upcoming space weather "storms" that could affect communications infrastructure.

Users are reading this story on a computer, hooked up to a worldwide network, all made from materials and processes developed for sending science results around the world. Many people watch television using data transferred via satellites stationed in space around the world.

Entertain Yourself

Personal entertainment electronics are also a spinoff from the space age. The music people listen to on personal players is delivered as digital data: ones and zeroes, the same as any other data delivered via computers. It's also the same method that helps deliver information from weather satellites, orbiting telescopes, and spacecraft at other planets. Space exploration required the ability to transform information into data that our machines can read. Those same machines power industries, homes, education, medicine, and many other things.

Explore Distant Horizons

Travel much? The airplanes we fly in, the cars we drive, the trains we ride in and the boats we sail on all use space-age technology to navigate. Their construction is influenced by lighter materials used to build spacecraft and rockets. Although few of us are able to travel to space, our understanding of it is enlarged by the use of orbiting space telescopes and probes that explore other worlds. For example, every day or so, new images come to Earth from Mars, sent by robotic probes that deliver new views and studies for scientists to analyze. People also explore the sea bottoms of our own planet using craft influenced by the life support systems needed to survive in space.

What Does All This Cost?

There are countless examples of space exploration benefits that we could discuss. But, the next big question people ask is "How much does this cost us?"

The answer is that space exploration may cost some money up front, just as any investment does. However, it pays for itself many times over as its technologies are adopted and used here on Earth. Space exploration is a growth industry and gives good (if long-term) returns. NASA's budget for the year 2016, for example, was $19.3 billion, which will be spent here on Earth at NASA centers, on contracts to space contractors, and other companies that supply whatever it is that NASA needs. None of it is spent in space. The cost works out to a penny or two for each taxpayer. The return to each of us is much higher.

As a part of the general budget, NASA's portion is less than one percent of the total federal spending in the U.S. That's far, far less than military spending, infrastructure costs, and other expenses the government takes on. It gets us many things in our daily lives that we never connected to space, from cellphone cameras to artificial limbs, cordless tools, memory foam, smoke detectors, and much more.

For that sliver of money, NASA's "return on investment" is very good. For each dollar spent on NASA's budget, somewhere between $7.00 and $14.00 is returned back into the economy. That's based on the income from spinoff technologies, licensing, and other ways that NASA money is spent and invested. That's just in the U.S. Other countries engaged in space exploration very likely see good returns on their investments, as well as good jobs for trained workers.

Future Exploration

In the future, as humans spread out to space, the investment in space exploration technologies such as new rockets and light sails will continue to spur jobs and growth on Earth. As always, the money spent to get "out there" will be spent right here on the planet.