We Just Blasted $1 Billion Into Space. Was It Worth It?

Falcon 9 SpaceX Rocket

Falcon 9 SpaceX Rocket

Watching the earth from space has always been an expensive hobby: 

  • About $340 million for the storied sun- and earth-watcher that went up Wednesday;
  • More than $900 million for the drought-and-flood monitor that went up two weeks before;
  • More than $150 million for NASA’s next one, an extreme-weather observing mission, expected to go up in October 2016.

There’s a payback from that payload: Launches such as this one are just awesome to behold. (Countdown to the next blastoff: T minus three weeks.)

Wait, there’s more. NASA says that for the half a percent or so the agency takes from the federal budget, such projects contribute more than their share (PDF) to the U.S. economy, including such innovations as smartphone cameras, which were first developed for spacecraft. But how to quantify the long-term economic gains from these launches?

  • QuickTake: The New Space Race

We need to get those numbers, say a team of NASA earth scientists and an economist from the nonpartisan research organization, Resources for the Future. 

Over the past few years, they have been trying to put an approximate dollar sign on the information that would come from a state-of-the-art climate satellite system, one four times or five times as accurate as the fleet of satellites up there now. 

The researchers stress that it’s possible (and a very good idea) to estimate the value of information gleaned from climate-watching systems. They say that if we fail to value scientific information properly—if we get stuck on the sticker shock of each mission—we may not be investing fast enough. 

“There still is no national or international climate observing system,” says Bruce Wielicki, a NASA scientist who studies the earth’s energy balance and who is participating in the research. “What would it be worth to see climate change more accurately?”

Wielicki says he encourages colleagues to better express with numbers the value of their work to society.

It’s hard to tell precisely how fast the world is warming, using our current instruments. There’s a bunch of temperature pathways we might be on, but which one it is might not be evident for an additional 20 or 30 years, far beyond the point at which we can do anything to address the problem. 

Think of the first second of an Olympic 100-meter sprint. After one second, it’s generally difficult to say with confidence which runner will prevail. That’s kind of where we are in regarding climate change. 

Scientists know where this race is headed and about how long it will take, but it’s hard to say with our current satellites which warming trajectory is actually “winning.” 

“You never observe anything with complete certainty,” says Roger Cooke of Resources for the Future.  It’s “always a question of reducing but not eliminating the uncertainty.” Better climate-observing systems would help.

If we had more accurate information, and if it emboldened policy-makers to act sooner, the earth could would avoid lots and lots of climate-related damage. 

That’s an intimidating chain of ifs. We don’t have much evidence that higher-quality information makes much of a difference in policy-making. The notion of “actionable scientific knowledge” is at best an ideal in Washington. At worst, it’s an oxymoron.

But let’s go with it for a minute. A climate-observing system would cost a lot, maybe $5 billion a year, the researchers wrote last year. A top-of-the-line, sky’s-the-limit climate-observing system might cost even more than that—totaling as much as $200 billion to $250 billion from 2020 to 2050, they wrote. 

And you know what? If smart carbon-cutting policy came out of the data, it might save $10 trillion in climate-related damages, in 2008 dollars, according to Wielicki. Or from $8 to $120 for every dollar invested, the researchers say. 

That would be a healthy rate of return. 

Again: It would be also amazing to watch.

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