The fuel economy window sticker for this vehicle would say 1 gallon per 32 feet. Called the crawler, it travels on a roadway 3.5 miles long, could carry 18 million pounds, and moves no faster than 2 mph. The crawler takes the space shuttle to its launchpad.
With the last space shuttle scheduled for July 8, the crawler is at the end of its long life. However, the knowledge it generated will live onward. Similarly, technology targeted for the space program was spun off to private industry. Temper foam? Now in mattresses. Vibration analysis? Used in guitars. Space suit technology? Found in sneakers.
The Economic Lesson
As economists, the Crawler takes us to the spillovers and positive externalities of the space program. With a spillover, others enjoy the benefits of a project originally involving a small group. Similarly, with a positive externality, a transaction between two individuals beneficially affects a third party. A vaccine for example, creates a positive externality. Yes, it benefits the person receiving it. But then, many others also remain healthy.
Originally involving 2 entities, NASA and its sub contractors, NASA technology will ripple outward to benefit many.
An Economic Question: From which positive externality might you benefit?
Sometimes the federal government spends a tax payer’s money in unexpected ways. According to the Washington Post, scientists funded by the Department of Defense are studying snakes that can fly. Slightly venomous, sort of air-slithering, these Southeast Asian snakes can glide through the air for as far as 780 feet. Our DOD wants to know how.
Thinking about the DOD and flying snakes took me to the space program. For industry and consumers, there are lots of practical examples of NASA sponsored research that have been used productively in the private sector. My favorite, though, is the golf ball with “500 dimples arranged in a pattern of 60 spherical triangles.” You can guess the benefit. Ball flight is faster and more stable.
As NY Times columnist David Leonhardt emphasized, fiscal prudence involves retaining projects that will stimulate economic growth. And as Thomas Friedman said, this takes us to “More (Steve) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.” To grow and diminish unemployment, we need to stimulate innovation.
The Economic Lesson
New technology and ideas propel economic growth. Economists can use production possibilities graphs to illustrate economic growth. On production possibilities graphs, a bowed out curve is drawn which illustrates a country’s maximum production capability. For example, when the ability to schedule thousands of overlapping activities is developed by NASA, licensed to a private company for commercial use, and manufacturing becomes more efficient, the production possibilities curve shifts to the right.
Maybe flying snakes research will eventually shift a production possibilities curve?
From our “Economics is Everywhere” file: Reviewing 20 years of research, a panel of 41 experts concluded that the asteroid that struck Mexico (at Chicxulub–chick-shoo-loob), 65 million years ago, extinguished the dinosaur population. The impact would have been so colossal that it resulted in a global winter because of the debris catapulted into the atmosphere.
Not convinced? You could look at What Bugged the Dinosaurs: Insects, Disease, and Death in the Cretaceous from Princeton University Press for an alternative theory.
Reading about asteroids soon took me to our the FY2011 federal budget to see what we are doing now. And sure enough, I discovered that asteroid research funds increased under NASA’s budget. Among the multiple asteroid programs is one that NASA has established with Saudi Arabia.
The Economic Life
Our federal budget is dominated by defense and entitlements which include social security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending. Receiving $19 billion from a budget totaling close to $4 trillion, NASA spending is relatively small. Anyone worried about the burgeoning deficit would see that austerity for asteroid research would have little impact as would cuts in most discretionary spending.