University of Vermont

EC20: Economics of Space Exploration

Instructor: Bill Gibson

Get info from NASA

The class is on Tues and Thurs from 4:25-5:40 pm in 221 Old Mill. The goal of the course is to enhance understanding of basic principles of economics as applied to space exploration.  There is a week-long break for Thanksgiving. Prerequisites: None, except high school physics and economics helpful. Exams: There will be a final and a midterm. Exams will consist of a mixture of problems, short answers and essay questions and will cover material from lectures and the readings. Grades are determined based on the midterm exam  (20%), final exam (30%), paper (30%), homework (20%). Software: All homework problems will be done in Excel and submitted electronically. Some competence in Excel is assumed. (If you are unfamiliar with Excel, there are numerous tutorials available on the web.) Mathematics: Algebra and some basic calculus will be used in the course. The course syllabus is updated throughout the semester. Dates are approximate.

The course addresses the following key question divided into 5 major parts.

Part 1: Should humans fly in space?

We have a choice: Does it make sense to spend billions on space exploration when the resources could be better spent on Earth? What are the trade-offs between social and scientific goals? Should we instead invest in infrastructure, education and poverty programs? Can basic economic theory shed any light on these questions?

Part 2: Can humans fly in space?

Are launch cost simply too high to make space colonies a viable alternative? Is it a practical option to become a spacefaring society? Or, is the gravity well of Earth simply too strong and deep to make space travel possible? Also, space travel subjects humans to risks they do not usually encounter on Earth. Are these risks worth it? As both the Challenger and Columbia disasters have shown, the human costs of space travel can be extraordinary.

Part 3: Must humans fly in space?

Are the limits to growth on Earth so severe that mankind has no alternative but to colonize space? Will we run out of petroleum resources for example and be forced to travel to Titan (a moon of Saturn) which has seas of hydrocarbons in order to survive? Will we be better off living in space colonies?

Part 4: What it the proper role for government in space exploration

The US space agency was born in 1958 in the crossfire of debates over public and private roles in space and the Cold War with the USSR. This was the golden age of industrial policy. NASA has evolved since and may now become largely irrelevant. Should the US have an industrial policy that supports space exploration? Should international cooperation be pursued? What then is the role of the private sector? How can can entrepreneurs make money in space?

Part 5: Will we go to the Moon, Mars and beyond?

There are serious plans in the making for this endeavor but it will be costly. Will the US space agency support it or is the sacrifice in terms of cheaper robotic missions not worth the cost?

Homework and exams

All assignments are done in Excel. On the Excel spreadsheets, fill in yellow areas only. Multiple choice is A,B,C,D. Some questions ask for numbers and others for specific words or phrases. Look for a comment (indicated by a red triangle in the corner of the cell) to indicate the kind of response required. No comment means a numerical answer. Your homework and exams are keyed to your student number. Submit your assignments to blackboard file name as your student number, e.g. for the first homework (h1)  950-48-3656_h1.xls. Do not change the position of any of your answers by inserting or deleting rows, columns or cells. If you do, you will not get credit for your answer even if the answer is correct.  There are NO MAKEUP EXAMS. Exam solutions are posted immediately after the exam so that answers will be available. This is the reason no make-up exams are given. Exams are 40 multiple choice questions and 3 short-answer questions. The lowest homework will be dropped to account for any illness or other reason a homework could not be handed in. SAS students cannot take exams in the proctoring center since solutions will be available immediately after the exam. Access students should contact Prof. Gibson to insure that the exam is begun early enough to be completed by the end of the exam period. Exams turned in after this time will not be accepted under any circumstances.

The class schedule

Principles of economics:  the market mechanism.  Utility and marginal utility.   The budget constraint.  Competition, costs and marginal costs.   Scarcity, choice and efficiency.  Fundamental theorem of economics: free markets allocate scarce resources most efficiently.  Supply and demand.   Tues 30  Aug 

Martian Technologies

Martian Science



Astro's Life

Last Day to Add Classes without Instructor Permission Fri 2 Sept   

The price mechanism.   Perfect competition and market adjustment.  Costs, total costs, average costs, fixed costs, marginal costs.  

Market failure:  externalities and public goods.   Monopoly and competition.   Price taking behavior.  Space debris as externality.   Public goods. 

Tues 6 Sept 

Profit and costs

GruberPublicGoods _chpt 7_.pdf 


Space debris

NASA Budget 

Economist on Space

Add/Drop, Pass/No Pass, Audit Deadline Mon 12 Sept  
Macroeconomics:  Aggregate demand and supply. The Keynesian multiplier.  Role of govt in the economic theory.     Tues 13 Sept 

Space Time Line

Film: Failure is not an Option

July 1969

Film: To the Moon

Film:  Project Orion


The space race. NASA.  Public and private space.  Tale of Two Companies.  Pioneers in aviation.     

Tues 20 Sept

Film: Sputnik Declassified 

NASA's Greatest Hits 

Film: Pioneers in Aviation: The Early Years

Film: Pioneers in Aviation: The War Years


Was the Race to the Moon Real?

The space economy.  Space tourism Tues 27 Sept

Film: Pioneers in Aviation: The Race to the Moon

Space Economy 2016 

Public private partnerships

Film: Space Tourism

The Russian space program Tues 4 Oct




Film: The Engine the Came in From the Cold

How to Reducing launch costs-SpaceX Tues 11 Oct



Getting there: Orbits Tues 18 Oct Orbital mechanics
Last Day to Withdraw Mon 25 Oct  
O'Neill: Leaving Home Tues 1 Nov

O'Neill, Chpt. 1-5

Film: The Key

Film:  The Vision part 1

Film: The Vision part 2

O'Neill: Islands in the Sky Tues 8 Nov  O'Neill,  Chpt. 6-8
Space Colonization Tues 15 Nov O'Neill,  Chpt. 9-10 
Papers due  20 Nov Midnight  Sample_paper_4.pd
Thanksgiving Recess 21-25 Nov  
Moon and Mars Tues 29 Nov 


Cost of Mars Mission.pdf 

Review and catch up Tues 7 Dec  
Final Exam: Comprehensive 1hr 15 min  12 Dec 16:30-17:45 UVM Final exam schedule