Last night, while I was watching the Kepler Mission launch feed on NASA TV, I heard an interview with Dr. Ed Weiler, the Associate Administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate (think of his position like VP for Research). Dr. Weiler was asked about the cost of the Kepler Mission, roughly $600 million over 5 years. First, he made what I considered the obvious comment: while $600 million sounds like a lot of money (and it is!), it works out about 40 cents per year per man, woman and child in the United States. (Heck, you can make it sound even cheaper: this is about a penny per person per week for five years).
Then Dr. Weiler made a statement that, while sounding perhaps a little gruff, is an argument I haven't heard much from NASA before: NASA doesn't burn money in space. It doesn't launch stacks of bills into orbit. That $600 million is spent here in the United States, primarily paying salaries of scientists, engineers, technicians, teachers, construction workers, truckers, and janitors, among others. Those people, who live spread around the country, use their salaries to buy groceries, houses, cars, and to pay for babysitters and repairmen. Those people then use that money for the same purchases and more. That $600 million, when all of this is added up, buys a lot more than several tons of aluminum rocketry and precision electronics. This spending and re-spending of the money will buy, in total, nearly a billion dollars worth of goods and services throughout the economy via a mechanism known as the multiplier effect. In short, the government spends $600 million dollars, impacts the economy to the tune of a billion dollars, and gets a really cool science mission to boot.
More importantly, Weiler is overtly reminding us that the cost of a NASA mission does not involve throwing money into a black hole. Your tax dollars are being sent back into the economy. They're employing hundreds highly skilled people who could otherwise be drawing unemployment right now. And they're giving us a chance to find Earth-like planets to boot. Perhaps we need to be reminded where the money is really going more often.