I've heard people argue for NASA funding, and it always seems weirdly abstract, like they can't just say, we should pay billions to get great space rock data. I'm sure space is really inspirational, and "exploration" is a tempting thing to do – and we shouldn't forget, there's no better way to practice your poetry than to let your sense of wonder run away with you, right? But I've found these justifications... a bit strange.
I wanted to take a prototypical example of reasonably strong pro-NASA arguments, and see how well they would apply to government funding of something that I think we can all agree, really, really doesn't need your tax dollars: Disney World. If you don't know, those Imagineers are no joke! They really do make some strange technology in the course of their work, so the comparison isn't totally bonkers. So I pulled up Mark Rober's analysis of why NASA should get your tax dollars instead of helping people in dire need, and I'd like to go through the points as he has organized them.
His first point is that "about half" of the JPL's programs are studying and helping Earth. Obviously, this is a slam dunk win for Disney World over NASA – literally everything the Magic Kingdom does is on Earth and for public consumption. In fact, by not being mediated by "research", it helps people more directly – you don't know if research will amount to anything, but if you entertain someone for a day, that's something. NASA (as he notes in the video) also spends a lot of money on programs that benefit e.g. rural Africa, but considering how little NASA's help really is, and if you consider the rampant pirating in poorer countries, as well as how well known many Disney properties are, I'd say this is about a tie. Niche programs to tell farmers about their own soil are... sort of useful, if you aren't there to see your farm? But everyone can go see a Disney movie. People think NASA is a fancier way to benefit the rural poor, but letting them steal a movie that delights them, makes they laugh, maybe even makes them cry? Which of those two is taken advantage of more? That should be a good hint to us about which one is better for them.
Of course, at it's core, Rober's just saying NASA is only wasting half their time (and probably more than half their money) on programs that have nothing to do with Earth at all. It's probably not supposed to be a good argument?
His second argument is interesting, or at least strikingly economically illiterate. He combines two very different scenarios, and says NASA needs money to help with both. The first, asteroid detection and trying to push incoming asteroids out of the way, is something I can get behind. I hate asteroids destroying cities and/or civilizations. But then he also says NASA needs money to figure out how humanity can survive on Mars, giving us a "backup" in case Earth is harmed.
Woah, there! One of those suffers from free rider issues and would be persistently underfunded by private efforts. But the other is something where every individual would benefit from having a home if Earth were destroyed, and there's substantial private interest in developing the technology! Those aren't the same at all! The asteroid problem is essentially solved at this point, and the Mars issue doesn't need your tax money. We should all be worried about arguments that don't consider what would happen without us doing something.
His next two points are under the "the money isn't totally wasted" umbrella – offshoot technologies (which Disney Land also has, like People Movers), and that it goes into the American economy. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that money goes (largely) into defense contractors. It turns out building space-parts is pretty similar to building fighter-jets-in-high-altitude parts. And, while I don't dispute that they get the money, I'm not sure handouts to military contractors that (largely) do nothing to protect Americans is such a great way to spend money. At least, not compared to helping people in need. All those smart minds have been diverted from other pursuits, as well. It's great NASA engineers have jobs, but it's probably e.g. made cars less safe to drive in, by competing for similar talent (safety-focused high-end mechanical and systems engineers).
Oh, and Mark Rober also says NASA is good for the imagination. I wonder if anyone at Disney Land has anything to say about that...