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The Austin American Statesman, March 3, 2009
At upcoming events in Austin and College Station, we will celebrate Texas Space Week. Attendees will be able to experience a little of the wonder and amazement I felt during my tenure as director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA and the space program are made up of some of the finest people I know, and I have plenty of experience in this area. Before I began my service at NASA, I led thousands of America's most dedicated service members, as the U.S. Marines commander in the Pacific. I believe that what the Marines are to our national defense, the space program is to our technological future.
Houston, and by extension the great state of Texas, is synonymous with the space program, and I share the pride we all feel in that connection. As a faculty member at the University of Texas, I see first-hand how our locally based space program inspires Texas students to take on difficult science, engineering and math curriculums. NASA's proximity also offers young Texans research unmatched anywhere else. These opportunities help keep our state competitive in an increasingly competitive world.
But is that enough in these tough economic times? If you look at the numbers, then the answer is a resounding yes. I have been encouraged to see what a significant impact NASA and the space program are having on our state economy. You may think of me as an old Marine, but I'm also an educated economist. Here are the facts.
NASA civil servants alone drew about $352 million in salary last year. That's our federal tax dollars returning to our state to support Texas businesses through purchases of everyday items, like groceries, gasoline, clothing and housing. Then when you consider the impact of the space program on private industry in our state, the figures multiply. The space program generates nearly 14,000 private-sector jobs, many in high-tech firms. The Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership estimates the total investment in Texas — just in salaries — is more than $2.5 billion.
The "multiplier effect," a term in economics that would describe how direct space program expenditures impact the broader Texas economy, shows an even more impressive return on investment. According to official figures, all told, the space program provides for more than 26,000 Texas jobs.
That's what I call stimulus. And it's not a make-work giveaway. America's space program is an important strategic asset for our country, especially with countries like India and China growing more ambitious in their own space exploration quests. We can't afford to fall behind. The Obama administration and Congress clearly recognize the importance of space exploration to our economy. They approved an extra $1 billion for NASA in the recent recovery bill.
What's also encouraging is that the American public agrees. A survey released in February by the Coalition for Space Exploration, a non-partisan advocacy group, showed that even with the pressing economic problems dominating the news, nine out of 10 Americans support the space program. And the more they learn about it, the stronger their support grows.
So as Texans, maybe it's not enough to take quiet pride in the fact that we're home to NASA's mission control, to the best-of-the-best corps of astronauts and to the skilled engineers and others who make the space program work. Maybe it's not enough for us to know how important our space program is to our local educational system and to our local economies.
Maybe we need to shout it from the rooftops — or, someday soon, from the surface of the moon or Mars. We need to make sure the rest of the country knows how key NASA is to our future success as a nation. We need to make sure they know that for less than 1 percent of the federal budget, NASA gives us scientific discovery and technological innovation that touch our lives every day: GPS systems, radial tires, smoke detectors and surgical devices.
I'm proud of my association with NASA. As Texans — as Americans — we all should be.
Howell, who was director of the Johnson Space Center from 2002 to 2005, is an adjunct faculty member at the LBJ School of Public Policy.
Copyright 2009 The Austin American Statesman
For more information on on the space program, you can also visit the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library's exhibit "To the Moon: The American Space Program in the 1060s."