When an ROI of Zero is a Good Investment

I went to see Neil deGrasse Tyson last night, and he brought up a great point about return on investment.

Someone had asked him what he thought about private companies venturing into space. He said he thought it was long overdue. But he also said that when it comes to exploring new frontiers, that’s best left to countries and governments.


Hypothetically, let’s say someone wanted to pitch a private company on traveling to Mars. Here’s (paraphrasing what Dr. Tyson said) how the conversation would go:

We want to go to Mars.
OK, how much will it cost?
We don’t exactly know, but a lot.
Is it dangerous?
Will people die?
What do we get out of this, and how much money can we expect to make?
I don’t know.

The conversation’s over before it starts.

The thing is, America did this when we went to the Moon, and we’ve continued to do it in the decades since.

What’s the ROI of NASA? Their stated mission is “To reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” Their annual budget for the last few years has been around $17 billion.

So the United States is spending $17 billion annually (less than 1 percent of total U.S. spending) to essentially look for stuff.

That may sound a little wishy washy, and it’s definitely why NASA gets kicked around politically whenever the U.S. Congress is faced with a budget deficit and needs to make cuts (which, when you consider that it only makes up 0.5% of total expenditures, is a complete waste of time). But in looking for stuff, we find or invent other stuff. Stuff like:

  • Cordless power tools
  • Scratch-proof lenses
  • Memory foam mattresses
  • Better shoe inserts
  • Temporal thermometers

(Here’s a whole hell of a lot more stuff that NASA has invented.)

And that’s without even starting to talk about the amazing discoveries that have been made about our planet and universe. This is all just ancillary stuff.

The point is, just because you can’t see the ROI of something doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

There’s value in trying to do something new, because even if you fail, you’ll have picked up things along the way that you didn’t have before, and that might come in handy in the future.

What’s the ROI? I don’t know. It could be nothing, or it could be everything you ever need.