Why should the government fund space exploration?

13 January 2008

This article (via /.) is meant to discuss whether space exploration is worth the cost, but discusses government-funded space exploration almost exclusively.  This makes sense; the discussion as to whether whether commercial and other private space exploration is worth the cost is more one for the boardroom, not the New York Times.  And it’s an interesting question; I’m pretty libertarian, and government-funded anything tends to raise my hackles – and to be perfectly honest, many of the arguments mentioned by the contributors to the article sound pretty weak.

But one does stand out.

I asked guests on The Space Show, students, and people in space-related fields what inspired or motivated them to start a space business or pursue their science education, over 80 percent said they were inspired and motivated because of our having gone to the moon.

When I was a kid, like most boys then, I wanted to be an astronaut.  I grew out of it, but my interest in science – which eventually led to my career in technology – started then.

It’s hardly scientific to point at the decline in space exploration in the West and the decline in the number of science graduates, and the contrasting rises in both in – say – China – and claim some kind of correlation.  But it does make you think.

If space exploration increases children’s interest in science, and causes long-term benefits to the economy that are not directly captured (or, I think capturable) by the explorers, then perhaps that’s a good reason for state spending in that area.

Of course – as you might have realised by my use of the word “West” above, it’s not directly captured by the funding country either.  British children like me were inspired by American space exploration.  Would they be inspired by Chinese space exploration?

I’ll leave that one open.