Ben Bova’s faulty economics

Sunday’s Naples (Florida) Daily News features a column by noted science fiction author and space advocate Ben Bova. He uses the column to promote both NASA and space commercialization, suggesting the private sector, for the right money, might be motivated enough to either service or safely return to Earth the Hubble Space Telescope. Unfortunately, he uses some faulty statistics to back up his claims.

Curiously, he states that NASA gets $12-13 billion a year: in fact, the agency received over $15 billion in 2004, and has been above $13.0 billion since the early 1990s. Moreover, Bova claims that “since NASA’s creation in 1958 the space agency has been allocated some $200 billion total”. In fact, between 1990 and 2004 the agency has received over $210 billion in real-year (unadjusted for inflation) dollars; going back to the beginning of NASA’s history reveals a sum of over $360 billion in real-year dollars, a total that roughly doubles when adjusted for inflation. (See this 2001 report for NASA’s budget totals through 2001.)

Bova also makes the claim that “economists have estimated that every dollar we spend on NASA is re-spent in the economy between five and 10 times.” While this is an oft-repeated claim, particularly among space activists, there’s little justification for this figure. Indeed, in his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan cites a 1994 Congressional Budget Office report concluded that NASA was no more beneficial than other government agencies in providing economic benefits, and certainly not at the levels Bova claimed.

Towards the end of the article, Bova also claims that “Congress is moving toward granting licenses to at least three private firms that want to fly humans into space.” In fact, it’s the FAA that will award those licenses, although Congress is considering legislation to codify the rules for defining suborbital spacecraft that the FAA is already using. Combined, it’s not clear that Bova has a clear grasp of the issues and can accurately weigh in on the abilites of NASA and the private sector.

1 comment to Ben Bova’s faulty economics

  • $12-13 billion is actually not that far off when you remember NASA is the National AERONAUTICS and Space Administration – Bova may also be relying on numbers that remove the “Earth Science” and Education budget figures from the total, since they’re not exactly “spending on space”.

    There’s probably some arguably legitimate way to calculate $200 billion for the total too; in any case that’s not really far enough from the $360 billion (minus aeronautics etc.) total you find to matter that much to a general audience – it’s still less than a single year’s defense or medicare+medicaid spending.

    On the economic benefits of the space program – there’s probably some way to calculate a couple of trillion dollars in economic benefits directly or indirectly stimulated by space spending; again I find it hard to imagine how anybody could get accurate numbers for such a calculation. At least from the 1994 CBO statement (was that pre-Gingrich?) the economic returns are no worse than for other spending. I.e. Bova may not be that far off; I just wonder what exactly his sources were.