An unmanned rocket owned by the private company Space Exploration Technologies launched Tuesday on the first commercial flight to the International Space Station. SpaceX, founded by PayPal's Elon Musk, has spent about $1.2 billion to date -- $400 million of it from NASA -- in its bid to develop private space flight into a viable commercial enterprise. It's been a busy couple of weeks for rich guys with outer space ambitions. In late April, a group including the co-founders of Google and film director James Cameron announced the formation of a startup company with plans to one day mine asteroids for platinum.
Space exploration may one day provide the Earth with tangible benefits. In the short-term, at least, SpaceX can help save the U.S. government the $60 million per person it's paying Russia to transport astronauts to the space station, which, as the joke goes, exists so that the now-canceled space shuttle would have somewhere to go. But we couldn't help thinking, as long as Silicon Valley plutocrats are throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars to solve global problems with questionable economic benefits, there are a few pressing Earth-bound ones they might consider.
HELPING STOP CHILDHOOD MALNUTRITION
In its 2012 challenge report, the Copenhagen Consensus Center -- which convenes economists, including several Nobel Prize winers, to provide cost-benefit analyses of solving various global crises -- ranked efforts to combat childhood malnutrition as its highest priority. (The center is controversial because of its founder Bjorn Lomborg's skepticism about efforts to combat climate change, but its numbers are at least worth considering as a conversation starter.)
According to the center's analysis, a $3 billion investment in interventions to reduce chronic undernutrition in pre-schoolers could reduce it by up to 36 percent in developing countries. In terms of education and health benefits, every dollar spent on combating undernutrition has at least a $30 payoff.
PREVENTING MALARIA AND OTHER CHILDHOOD DISEASES
Among diseases, Copenhagen gives its highest priority to efforts to prevent malaria. According to the center's analysis, every $1 million spend on a subsidy for malaria combination treatment would result in an additional 300,000 children being treated, preventing 1,000 deaths. Another area to consider is childhood immunization. Malaria control is considered one of the most cost-effective health interventions in terms of results per dollar spent.
The economists convened by the center estimate that $1 billion spent annually on increasing immunizations can prevent 1 million childhood deaths.
PROVIDING EARLY WARNING FOR CYCLONES
In 2009, the World Bank's Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery conducted a cost-benefit analysis of seven types of natural disaster preparedness. In terms of effectiveness and the number of potential lives saved, the bank concluded that cyclone warnings are by far the most effective. Tropical cyclones kill more than 10,000 people globally each year, but improved forecasting can increase lead-times for evacuation and significantly reduce those numbers.
For instance, 2007's Cyclone Sidr killed around 3,400 people in Bangladesh and caused an estimated $1.7 billion in damage. An advanced numerical weather prediction system would have cost about $3.1 million to deploy over a 10-year period, but could have reduced the monetary damages caused by Sidr by more than $79.14 million -- a 2,500-percent return on investment.
IMPROVING WATER SANITATION
Looking for a cost-effective way to save lives and grow the global economy? Try providing clean water. Worldwide, 884 million people lack access to improved water sources -- meaning house connections or protected wells. Some 2.6 billion people lack access to improved water sanitation, meaning sewer connections, septic tanks, or pit latrines. According to the World Health Organization, improving sanitation could reduce the global disease burden - years of life lost to premature mortality or poor health --by 9.1 percent and prevent the deaths of 1.5 million children per year.
Water improvement interventions are fairly cost effective. In most developing countries, $1 spent on improved water can translate to between $5 and $11 in economic benefits thanks to health savings and fewer work days lost due to disease and diarrhea. In the United States, investments in water filtration and chlorination in the first half of the 20th century had an estimated rate of return of 23 to 1.
The Guttmacher Institute, a global reproductive health NGO, estimated in 2009 that it would cost an additional $3.6 billion to meet the world's unmet need for modern family-planning methods. Providing all pregnant women and their newborns with the recommended standard of medical care would cost an additional $9.2 billion -- though preventing unwanted pregnancies would shave $5.1 billion off that. This spending, they estimate, could cut unintended pregnancies from 75 million to 22 million per year and reduce maternal deaths by 70 percent, newborn deaths by 44 percent, and unsafe abortions by 73 percent.
The total price tag for Guttmacher's recommendations is an additional $12.8 billion per year. Yes, that's pretty hefty. But when you consider the fact that $1 billion gets you about two ounces of an asteroid, it starts to seem a little more reasonable.