Changing Planet

Space Exploration Dollars Dwarf Ocean Spending

This article was originally published by the Center for American Progress.

“Star Trek” would have us believe that space is the final frontier, but with apologies to the armies of Trekkies, their oracle might be a tad off base. Though we know little about outer space, we still have plenty of frontiers to explore here on our home planet. And they’re losing the race of discovery.

Hollywood giant James Cameron, director of mega-blockbusters such as “Titanic” and “Avatar,” brought this message to Capitol Hill last week, along with the single-seat submersible that he used to become the third human to journey to the deepest point of the world’s oceans—the Marianas Trench. By contrast, more than 500 people have journeyed into space—including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who sits on the committee before which Cameron testified—and 12 people have actually set foot on the surface of the moon.

All it takes is a quick comparison of the budgets for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, to understand why space exploration is outpacing its ocean counterpart by such a wide margin.

In fiscal year 2013 NASA’s annual exploration budget was roughly $3.8 billion. That same year, total funding for everything NOAA does—fishery management, weather and climate forecasting, ocean research and management, among many other programs—was about $5 billion, and NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research received just $23.7 million. Something is wrong with this picture.

Space travel is certainly expensive. But as Cameron proved with his dive that cost approximately $8 million, deep-sea exploration is pricey as well. And that’s not the only similarity between space and ocean travel: Both are dark, cold, and completely inhospitable to human life.

The single-seat submersible, Deepsea Challenger, which James Cameron piloted to the bottom of the Marianas Trench last year arrived at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last week. (Photo by James S. Talbot)
The single-seat submersible, Deepsea Challenger, which James Cameron piloted to the bottom of the Marianas Trench last year arrived at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last week. (Photo by James S. Talbot)

Yet space travel excites Americans’ imaginations in a way ocean exploration never has. To put this in terms Cameron may be familiar with, just think of how stories are told on screens both big and small: Space dominates, with “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” and “2001 A Space Odyssey.” Then there are B-movies such as “Plan Nine From Outer Space” and everything ever mocked on “Mystery Science Theater 2000.” There are even parodies: “Spaceballs,” “Galaxy Quest,” and “Mars Attacks!” And let’s not forget Cameron’s own contributions: “Aliens” and “Avatar.”

When it comes to the ocean, we have “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Sponge Bob Square Pants,” and Cameron’s somewhat lesser-known film “The Abyss.” And that’s about it.

This imbalance in pop culture is illustrative of what plays out in real life. We rejoiced along with the NASA mission-control room when the Mars rover landed on the red planet late last year. One particularly exuberant scientist, known as “Mohawk Guy” for his audacious hairdo, became a minor celebrity and even fielded his share of spontaneous marriage proposals. But when Cameron bottomed out in the Challenger Deep more than 36,000 feet below the surface of the sea, it was met with resounding indifference from all but the dorkiest of ocean nerds such as myself.

Part of this incongruity comes from access. No matter where we live, we can go outside on a clear night, look up into the sky, and wonder about what’s out there. We’re presented with a spectacular vista of stars, planets, meteorites, and even the occasional comet or aurora. We have all been wishing on stars since we were children. Only the lucky few can gaze out at the ocean from their doorstep, and even those who do cannot see all that lies beneath the waves.

As a result, the facts about ocean exploration are pretty bleak. Humans have laid eyes on less than 5 percent of the ocean, and we have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of America’s exclusive economic zone—the undersea territory reaching out 200 miles from our shores.

Sure, space is sexy. But the oceans are too. To those intrigued by the quest for alien life, consider this: Scientists estimate that we still have not discovered 91 percent of the species that live in our oceans. And some of them look pretty outlandish. Go ahead and Google the deepsea hatchetfish, frill shark, or Bathynomus giganteus.

In a time of shrinking budgets and increased scrutiny on the return for our investments, we should be taking a long, hard look at how we are prioritizing our exploration dollars. If the goal of government spending is to spur growth in the private sector, entrepreneurs are far more likely to find inspiration down in the depths of the ocean than up in the heavens. The ocean already provides us with about half the oxygen we breathe, our single largest source of protein, a wealth of mineral resources, key ingredients for pharmaceuticals, and marine biotechnology.

Of course space exportation does have benefits beyond the “cool factor” of putting people on the moon and astronaut-bards playing David Bowie covers in space. Inventions created to facilitate space travel have become ubiquitous in our lives—cell-phone cameras, scratch-resistant lenses, and water-filtration systems, just to name a few—and research conducted in outer space has led to breakthroughs here on earth in the technological and medical fields. Yet despite far-fetched plans to mine asteroids for rare metals, the only tangible goods brought back from space to date remain a few piles of moon rocks.

The deep seabed is a much more likely source of so-called rare-earth metals than distant asteroids. Earlier this year the United Nations published its first plan for management of mineral resources beneath the high seas that are outside the jurisdiction of any individual country. The United States has not been able to participate in negotiations around this policy because we are not among the 185 nations that have ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs such activity.

With or without the United States on board, the potential for economic development in the most remote places on the planet is vast and about to leap to the next level. Earlier this year Japan announced that it has discovered a massive supply of rare earth both within its exclusive economic zone and in international waters. This follows reports in 2011 that China sent at least one exploratory mission to the seabed beneath international waters in the Pacific Ocean. There is a real opportunity for our nation to lead in this area, but we must invest and join the rest of the world in creating the governance structure for these activities.

Toward the end of last week’s hearing, Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who chairs the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, hypothetically asked where we would be today if we had spent half as much money exploring the oceans as we have spent exploring space. Given the current financial climate in Congress, we won’t find the answer to his question on Capitol Hill.

But there may be another way.

Cameron is currently in preproduction on the second and third “Avatar” films. He says the former will be set on an ocean planet. No one except he and his fellow producers at 20th Century Fox really know how much the first installment of the movie series cost, but estimates peg it at approximately $250 million—or 10 times the total funding for NOAA’s Ocean Exploration program. Since the original “Avatar” grossed more than $2 billion at the box office worldwide, if NASA isn’t willing to hand over a bit of its riches to help their oceanic co-explorers, maybe Cameron and his studio partners can chip a percent or two off the gross from “Avatar 2” to help fill the gap.

Come to think of it, if the key to exploring the oceans hinges either on Hollywood giving up profits or Congress increasing spending, maybe we are more likely to mine asteroids after all.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Judy Li, an intern at the Center for American Progress, contributed to this work.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.
  • Geoffrey A. Landis

    Ocean exploration is cheap enough that private individuals like Cameron CAN fund their own exploration. It will be great when access to space is low enough in cost to do that— but it isn’t yet. If you could do a mission to Mars for eight million, the cost quoted for Cameron’s mission to the bottom of the Marianas, we wouldn’t need NASA for it.

    And, of course, the oceans are already commercialized. Just for a start, commercial fishing is a 200 BILLION dollar a year industry. A single offshore oil drilling rig can cost five billion dollars– and people set these up because they make a profit on them. NASA’s budget is dwarfed by what’s being put into the oceans by industry already.

    You want to fund ocean exploration? Put a ten percent exploration surcharge on every dollar of income harvested from the oceans.

  • Todd Austin

    I am confused by the point of this argument. Why is there any reference to space here? How is it relevant that space and the deep oceans are both cold and dark? This piece drifts way over into the fallacious Republican approach that gets us all to argue with one another over pies of diminishing size.

    You cannot cut your way to scientific discovery in any realm. The argument that more should be invested in exploring our oceans stands on its own merits. Slipping in snide attacks on funding received by other scientists serves only to diminish the argument and plays into the hands of those who would cut funding for anything that has even a faint smell of science about it.

  • Roberto

    I’m sorry Michael, but Geoffrey’s answer to your article seems perfect to me.
    Your article doesn’t make almost sense, it seems only a useless controversy within science field.

  • I appreciate the comments, and understand the frustration in the scientific community that politics is causing us to make these kind of either-or choices. In an ideal world, we’d have limitless cash to spend on exploration of all stripes. However, in today’s political climate (yes, Todd, particularly within the Republican party) the reality is we can’t fund everything we want to do. The choice between spending more on ocean exploration and spending more on space exploration is not a false one in Washington, where the first question asked when one proposes new spending is “how will it be offset?” We need to explore more in the deep sea, yet in order to pay for it, the money has to come from somewhere else.

    Given the reality of politics, and the fact that the two remaining areas to explore are the oceans and space the question is: what should be the proper ratio at which to spend our federal exploration budget? My argument is simply that this balance in Washington is skewed too far in favor of space. Calling this a “useless controversy” simply ignores the reality that dollars are finite.

  • Dinis Afonso Ribeiro

    Trying to dive a little deeper, to me, the real issue has to do with a balanced, civilized, and proper commercialization process…

    I agree with this:

    “And, of course, the oceans are already commercialized.
    Just for a start, commercial fishing is a 200 BILLION dollar a year industry. A single offshore oil drilling rig can cost five billion dollars– and people set these up because they make a profit on them.”

    Moreover, the “flashy” piles of banknotes made me think of this classic book:

    Flashy or not, the “banknotes” did attract my attention and the comments have been “thought-provoking”, which is always a positive thing.

  • Frank S

    Space versus oceans is, to a large extent, a false dichotomy – especially as posed in this article. From space, we have learned far more about the Earth – most especially the oceans – than we could ever hope to do from the surface where you face great difficulty in gathering enough detail to pull together the big picture (can you imagine appreciating a painting by just looking up close at the brush strokes or a tv show by looking at pixels on the screen?)
    NASA does seek to explore and to understand how to live and work in space. The former is also relevant to understanding our oceans; we now know Mars once had oceans – now it’s a dusty shadow of its former self – why? How do we know this couldn’t happen to Earth? Here again we benefit by looking at a bigger perspective from space. As for living and working in space – in addition to the billions already spent on offshore oil exploration and production and fisheries, what about the trillions spent by the US and other nations on developing nuclear subs and other craft to enable people to live submerged for six months to a year as well as mapping in detail the ocean floors where our Cold War adversaries might have hidden?
    The point isn’t that NASA gets a lot to do things in space – we spend far more related to the oceans – it’s just that i’s not spent through NOAA and it’s not all focused on the deepest reaches of the seas.

  • Peter E

    I’m not confused by the article, but rather by the comments.

    (1) confusing commercial use of the ocean with a scientific understanding of the role of the ocean in our climate and ecology -Geoffrey & Dinis.

    Spending by commercial entities to extract resources from the ocean does not directly advance scientific knowledge or policy. Yes, commercial entities advanced areas of scientific understanding, but that is not their primary purpose. And certainly policy direction from these entities is slanted towards their needs (understandably).

    The ocean presents the typical “dilemma of the commons” problem to nations around the world. Space will at some point as well (space junk anybody), but we’re not there yet. Why is that relevant?

    When the ecosystem of the ocean degrades to a point of concern, which nation(s) will step up to make changes?

    Were the folks commenting on this article going to suggest that our ocean is better shape today than it was 50 years ago? I think you could say that space – and it’s associated objects (asteroids & planets) are far from being impacted by the commercialization or research of nations.

    • Lolana

      There are mass die-offs in the ocean right now.
      Kinda seems like that point of concern has been reached. And yeah, people on this article don’t seem to understand its point.
      But then people really did get seduced by sci fi. I see it and hear about it all the time.
      It’s sad really.

  • Paige Jennings

    This article was super helpful. I’m actually writing a persuasive essay on why we should explore the oceans instead of space. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks!

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