The recent launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy raises a number of questions about the Return on Investment (RoI) of Space Travel. It is natural that the Wall Street Journal would focus on the economics of creating rockets that may have greater capability than the current projected need for such devices. Elon Musk however, is working on a different set of metrics.
To understand the real RoI of space travel, we need to consider how the SpaceX launch to solar orbit near the distance of Mars for Musk’s beloved Tesla car affects others. I was raised on the space program, from New Hampshire native Alan Sheppard’s Mercury flight though the 1969 moon landing, and beyond. Did this encourage me (and many others) to get into STEM fields? You bet. Did it make humans across the planet stand in awe as humanity took it’s first small step off the planet? Yup. Can that be measured in dollars and cents? No.
Musk and others plan trips to the moon, soon. They are looking at bases that can start the slow process of learning to live on a different world. Looking for resources beyond those on Earth. Some of these are profit driven. Nation states such as China and India, as well as the U.S., see steps in this direction as demonstrations of national capability. A similar line of thought goes into the Olympics, or winning Nobel prizes — countries like to highlight these aspects of their societies. And this beats highlighting their nuclear or chemical weapons capabilities.
What year will we return to the Moon? When will we have our first colony there? What are the corresponding dates for Mars? I’m guessing ten to thirty years for at least most of these events.
Will they generate large profits? Will they solve global challenges like climate change, disease, clean air, clean water? Probably not. Will they lift the human spirit and give us a sense that these other problems are within our grasp? Will they attract the young minds we need to address these challenges? I think so, and that is the real RoI for space travel. Thank you Elon, NASA, and those who are giving us the return on investment that inspires engineers and technologists.