While the American people's support for basic space exploration is by and large very strong, it is often asked: What benefits does planetary exploration yield? Is space exploration good for the United States? Is it worth the money put into it?
On the utilitarian side, ''spinoffs'' have often been cited as the main reason why the US should continue to explore. However, spinoffs are not the reason we explore space, and the tremendous economic and technological benefits we have derived from spinoff technologies should not be confused with why we explore - namely, our desire and curiosity as human beings to probe the unknown.
From a strictly economic point of view, basic exploration has always been important to an evolving, expanding society. Exploration, in this sense, includes basic research and development (R&D) and, over the last 30 years or so, a number of studies have been done to estimate the economic impact of R&D spending on the US economy.
The most comprehensive of these, with regard to NASA funding, was the 1976 work performed by Chase Econometrics Associates of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. Although the analysis was performed specifically with the 1975 economy in mind, the results are most likely applicable to the present economy.
The principal conclusions reached by the Chase study are twofold. First, a $1 billion increase in NASA spending, coupled with a $1 billion reduction of other federal expenditures in any single year would likely: (a) reduce the inflation pressures on the economy, (b) increase employment, (c) increase productivity.
Second, a sustained increase in NASA spending of $1 billion per year over 10 years would significantly: (a) increase the GNP, (b) reduce the consumer price index, (c) reduce unemployment, (d) increase the productivity of the nonfarm sector of the economy.
Overall, the Chase study claims a 43 percent return on investment for every dollar invested in NASA R&D, with the net effects on various aspects of the economy roughly linearly proportional to the amount invested.
However, it is a well-known fact that economic modeling is an inexact science. Consequently, even the best of models is open to substantial criticism, even if that criticism amounts to simply a divergence of economic philosophy. In that sense, it is not the absolute magnitude of the results of the Chase study, but rather the direction and approximate range of the estimated returns on investment.
Historically, exploration has always tied the natural human desire to explore with the drive to acquire more and better material goods. In the past, a number of societies have chosen to get away from exploration, to turn their attention towards more immediately pressing needs at home. For those peoples, the Vikings, Chinese, Romans, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and English, to name a few, such a drawing away from expansion and exploration has always marked a turning point in that society's power and influence. Once the decision was made to cease exploring, the society began to contract, and its empire subsequently weakened.
Perhaps the US is at such a point. If we are, then let us use history to guide us in our decisions.
Today, our leaders are telling us that they have made the decision for us. We will not fly to Halley's Comet, although the Soviets, Europeans, and Japanese will be there. We have canceled our half of the International Solar Polar Mission, leaving the Europeans with only one-half of a two-spacecraft mission to study the sun. We have delayed our next mission to Venus, the Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar, until at least 1988; and even then it will likely be equipped to do far less science than originally planned. And Project Galileo, NASA's next mission to Jupiter, and the only funded planetary mission for the '80s, has an increasingly difficult battle with Congress for funding each year.
We are rapidly losing the desire, and along with it, the capability to explore the solar system. And the sad thing is, the cost in dollars is tiny. A mission like Voyager or Galileo costs each American the equivalent of a pack of chewing gum a year for the entire lifetime of the mission. Moreover, the total annual cost necessary to maintain a vigorous planetary exploration and general space science R&D program is less than one tenth of one percent of the federal budget - less than the cost of one B-1 bomber, or less than one day's worth of the Health and Human Services budget.
All we have done in space exploration to date is only a beginning. If we stop now, if we turn our eyes inward and refuse to look further than our hands can reach, then we will lower our sights on all things and, as a society, we will likely meet the same fate as the Vikings, Romans, and Europeans of old.