Return on Investment

Although I rarely have time to participate in the conversations (I have what is quaintly called a “day job”), I do read most of the comments posted to this blog. A few days ago, one commenter, in an aside to the point being made, suggested that the US should stop “wasting” money on space exploration.

I disagree, because I think the evidence is overwhelming that money spent on exploration and research is invested, not wasted. And the return on that investment has been impressive, as articles from Investopedia and elsewhere have documented.

Leaving aside the benefits that cannot be monetized– satisfaction of our human urge to explore, to understand, to seek out new life and new civilizations (okay, I’m a Star Trek fan)–here are just some of the very concrete returns on America’s investment in NASA:

  • Aircraft collision-avoidance systems
  • Cordless power tools
  • Corrosion resistant coatings for bridges
  • Digital imaging
  • Ear thermometers
  • GPS (global positioning satellites)
  • Household water filters
  • Hydroponic plant-growing systems
  • Implantable pacemakers
  • Infrared handheld cameras
  • Kidney dialysis machines
  • LASIK corrective eye surgery
  • Memory foam mattresses
  • Scratch-resistant sunglasses
  • Safety grooving on pavement
  • Shoe insoles
  • Virtual reality
  • Weather forecasting
Space exploration has also expanded human knowledge and contributed to research in education, healthcare, pollution control, rain forest protection and transportation. These and many other NASA-inspired advancements have a profound effect on life on Earth by improving health, safety, comfort and convenience. Entire industries have been built on space technology, including personal computers and natural resource mapping. As one of the nation’s strongest industries and an employer of nearly one million Americans, the aeronautics industry uses NASA-developed technology on nearly all aircrafts.

These benefits have been produced by an agency with the smallest budget of any of the major agencies in the federal government. NASA’s share of total U.S. Federal outlay has consistently remained below 1%, and during the past five years, closer to 0.5%.I think we get our money’s worth. We surely get more value per dollar than we get from our extravagant defense spending.

And unlike money spent on weapons, we are enhancing rather than degrading our humanity.


  1. You’ve provided a more complete list of inventions inspired by space travel than any others seen. Thanks for educating us AGAIN.

  2. Mea culpa! I had no idea! I knew about John Glenn’s vertigo, being a victim of vertigo myself I paid attention. And moon rocks. Of course weather tracking is common knowledge. I join Nancy Papas in a thank you.

  3. Thank you Sage Sheila, you always impress me. I have FB friends in other parts of the country who now follow and share you, because I have shared your postings so many times.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree! Anything that advanced our body of knowledge can lead to good. I used to think that some of the projects funded by government were money wasters until I learned what the reasons for the research were. I do understand that not every project is valid, the majority are.

  5. This reminds me of all the jobs related to the renewables industries. People have no idea. When legislation stops progressive ideas, it stops jobs jobs jobs. Thanks!

  6. Brings up an interesting and significant issue. There are wise people who
    understand that everything is connected when you are talking about the common good, and then there are those who think it’s all about their next meal.

  7. To conservatives all monetary transactions boil down to either a cost or profit for executives and investors.

    In fact life consists of labor, consumption and investment. Labor is the creation of all goods and services that we need, consumption is putting them to use. Investment is putting side what we don’t need yet for the future when we might.

    If there is one unwavering trend in human history it has been progress, much of which is revealing more and more of the mysteries of all things. In other words equipping future generations to live better than we. What better use for the things that we create in excess of satisfying current needs?

    Progress is what distinguishes humans from all other life forms. Purposeful rational evolution instead of merely random experiments from genetic mutations blindly searching for adaptation advantage.

    Philosophers ponder the meaning of life. Progress is the answer. Investment is what empowers progress.

    Both liberals and conservatives want progress. Liberals want everybody to benefit from it.

  8. It was investment in progress that revealed to us in time that we can no longer afford energy from fossil fuels. It was investment in progress that revealed to us in time that we can harvest all of the energy that we need directly from our only energy sources: the sun and it’s current aftereffects like wind and water, the gravity of the sun and moon forming tides, and the heat lost from earth’s molten core.

    If we had not invested in that knowledge before we needed we’d have been way too late to save us from us.

  9. Pete! Don’t you get tired of trashing business owners? I realize that there are many who are as greedy as you describe, but I know many successful business owners who are generous to their own detriment with employees and strangers. The profit motive is very strong (and all-consuming for some), but I find more altruism in business owners (willing to share their own good fortune) than I find in liberals (willing to compel others to share their good fortune).

  10. Ken, props to the business owners that don’t have to ” compelled”…
    Pete, I like what you said… And I have enough sense to understand that that wasn’t a blanket statement…

  11. What’s a business owner? The person(s) who paid for the means of production, the physical assets necessary to create the products and services. The owner essentially rents the assets to the people who use them to create, sell, distribute, and service their product.

    Sometimes the owner(s) is(are) also labor. The more complex the service and product the more specialized labor is typically required.

    Some labor is required to organize and direct the operations.

    All free market businesses follow the one rule. Make more money regardless of the cost to others. This of course is the big limitation that can only be mitigated by intense competition. Competition limits make more money which is why businesses are so committed to reducing/limiting it.

    All in all a pretty fragile system which requires substantial regulation in order to serve the society that permits it.

    Today the most dysfunctional aspect of the system is that the executives have a stronger, if less formal, union than the labor who actually creates the products and/or services.

    The executive union is a cabal of executives and their wholly owned politicians and financial institutions whose service is handling the wealth created by others.

    What’s it going to take to restore functionality? IMO it’s a return to strong labor unions and/or stronger populous government a la Bernie and much stronger regulation especially on large financial institutions.

    It’s not retribution but responding to the inequality created by business. They’ve been too successful getting their way. Time to swing the pendulum back.

  12. Rarely do I disagree with the Boss, but I think there is more to it than what appears. First off, computers genesis begins with the British weaving looms of the 18th century, so kudos should go there rather than NASA. 1% of the budget? So is the food stamp program so go figure. Which more directly benefits? Which is less detrimental? (averaged paycheck in NASA? $100K) What is the government’s prime responsibility? Which of the list of benefits would have occurred without NASA? None of them? All of them? The nature of the evolution of ideas and progression is far too complex to ascribe it to a single enterprise. There are limits to man’s space adventures which we cannot avoid. NASA, along with other agencies, has filled space with trash. One thing is certain: Distances preclude planet migration. My brain cells might aspire to transport to Halle Berry but it won’t happen. She’s too distant. Investigate into why you can’t actually touch a tabletop and it becomes clearer.

    Just as we have filled our lands and oceans with plastic, we have expanded to our skies. . Each year there is more and space collisions will inevitably result in more trash. Ramifications are beyond our capacity but we don’t seem to understand that. We are prone to acting in haste and repenting at leisure. That is the nature of Western culture: Penny wise and pound foolish.

    Just as in the Middle East, we don’t seem to recognize water over our heads.

  13. One of the many reasons why I read this blog every day. Well, I catch up with your weekend posts on Monday…. Thank you again, Ms Kennedy.

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