Economics in space: trading and the new value of Earth : The Indicator from Planet Money Economics is the earthiest of the social sciences. But its principles apply equally in space. The difference is how certain goods, services and even experiences gain currency in zero gravity.
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Economics in Space

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Economics In Space

Economics in Space

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The International Space Station - Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada, of course NASA all send astronauts there.


And that space station is said to be literally the most expensive thing ever built, just hundreds of billions of dollars and counting.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, apparently every shuttle trip to get supplies and people back and forth to the space station costs hundreds of millions of dollars. This is according to astronaut Doug Wheelock.

DOUG WHEELOCK: Actually, everybody at NASA calls me Wheels. I'm one of the old, grizzled veterans, so the early career astronauts call me Papa Wheels (ph).

VANEK SMITH: Doug - Papa Wheels - served as the commander of the International Space Station and lived there orbiting the Earth for six months. He says there are generally about half a dozen people aboard the International Space Station at any one time, just all crammed together. And of course, Cardiff, wherever you have people, you have an economy.


VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, economics in space. We get the lowdown from Papa Wheels on the microeconomy that is the International Space Station.

GARCIA: And we explain how the value of things changes when, you know, you're floating in space, floating in a little ship in space and looking out your window at planet Earth.


GARCIA: The life of an astronaut - it sounds so awesome, so adventurous. Astronaut Doug Wheelock says, though, most of the time it's actually pretty routine, regimented. You wake up. You have breakfast. You do a bunch of scientific experiments, and then you eat lunch, then more experiments, exercise, dinner, and you go to sleep.

VANEK SMITH: And of course, there are no shops or movie theaters or banks or anything like that. So the economy aboard the International Space Station is all about trade.

WHEELOCK: The interesting thing is with food, of course. The Russians' food supply is much different than our food supply.

VANEK SMITH: The Russians, says Doug, really loved the U.S. desserts, which were like brownies and cakes and these freeze-dried packets. And the American astronauts really loved the Russian soups. Apparently, the borscht is excellent.

GARCIA: Yeah, excellent is a relative term, of course. Doug says that aboard the space station, most of the food is actually pretty bland.

VANEK SMITH: But every three months, a big event would happen. Doug and his crew would get a shipment from Earth. And these resupply missions were a big deal. Remember, it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to send a shuttle to the space station. So when those shipments actually came, says Doug, it was a very special moment.

GARCIA: Yeah, and in those shipments would be like personal items, letters from home, loved ones. Yeah. Who cares?

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: There was also this really precious commodity.

WHEELOCK: Just before they closed the hatch on the launch pad, they would throw like a bag of fresh fruit, like oranges, lemons, apples, vegetables as well.

GARCIA: Aboard the space station, Doug says, produce was like platinum.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And when the shipments would arrive, he says everybody would get together, and the excitement was electric.

WHEELOCK: We'd all get in the node one, which is our kitchen area, you know, and float all the fruit and vegetables - OK, so we're all - it's like Christmas morning.

GARCIA: But Doug says everybody would only get one or two pieces of produce, so it just wasn't that much of it. And so here's where the trade comes in. Doug knew that the Russians loved onions. They're great for flavoring food. But Doug loved fruit above everything else.

WHEELOCK: And I would say, like, man, I would take an orange over this onion any day, you know. Fyodor Yurchikhin was my commander. I said, hey, Fyodor, you want to trade an onion for - do you have like an extra orange? He goes, oh, you don't want your onion?

VANEK SMITH: Doug says that orange trade is just legendary in his mind still, because for Doug, that orange was not just a snack, it was a connection to Earth. It was like his companion.

WHEELOCK: It was funny. I had - I - at one point I kind of laughed because I felt like Tom Hanks in "Castaway," you know, with Wilson the volleyball.

VANEK SMITH: With Wilson the volleyball (laughter).

WHEELOCK: I hung on to like one orange for, like, it seemed like probably three weeks, you know, and they became sort of my crewmate.

GARCIA: Of course, the space station economy was not just about food, though. Services were also a big part of it. And different people aboard the space station had different things they could contribute because they had such different backgrounds. They were scientists, engineers, pilots.

WHEELOCK: So skill sets - seriously, skill sets - became part of our commerce as well.

VANEK SMITH: Doug, for instance, has an engineering background. And he says, for him, one of his least favorite parts of life aboard the space station where all the scientific experiments they had to do. Whatever their background, this was just part of what they did every day.

GARCIA: Yeah. And the space station would typically be running more than a hundred experiments at any given moment, scientific research about food and plants, medicines. It's just a full day. And it's also part of the mission of the space station. But for Doug, honestly, it was kind of a slog sometimes. The way out of it? Economics. Doug discovered this a couple of weeks into his mission when one of the scientists aboard the space station told him that there was a big problem.

WHEELOCK: She said, hey, the potty's broken.

VANEK SMITH: I mean...

GARCIA: That does sound like a big problem.


VANEK SMITH: I feel panicked.

GARCIA: That's at least not what you want to hear aboard a space station, that's for sure.

VANEK SMITH: No. But Doug's background was in engineering, so he understands systems. And he says fixing things comes really naturally to him. And the scientist, this woman named Shannon (ph), knew this about Doug.

WHEELOCK: Shannon looked at me. She said, if you fix the potty, I'll do all of your science for the rest of the day. And I'm thinking, like, that is a deal and a half. I'll take that deal. So I got my tool belt, called Houston and said, you know, Houston, we have a problem. The potty's broken.

GARCIA: Doug says, actually, the toilet broke quite a bit. And whenever it happened, whenever the toilet broke, Doug's economic value pretty much shot to infinity.

WHEELOCK: I figured out that if you're out in space and you can fix the potty, you're like lord of the Universe.

VANEK SMITH: But the real commodity on the space stations, says Doug, was Earth itself, because he says when you see the whole planet against this backdrop of outer space every day, it just changes the way that you value things.

WHEELOCK: It's just like this raging ball of life in this vast desert of darkness, you know. That takes root, like, very, very quickly. And it's like, wow, there's my planet. Everything I've ever known, you know, every word ever spoken, you know, everybody I've ever loved is down there and I'm not there. And so that's when it really kind of strikes you is - when I talk to students and young children, you know, we talk about our favorite planet and things. And I said, you know, Pluto was my favorite planet. I said, but then I went to space, and now Earth is my favorite planet.

GARCIA: Doug says, when you're in space, you start to crave all things Earth and human

WHEELOCK: Evidence of life becomes the currency.

GARCIA: For example, Doug says, you just want to see and talk to other humans. Even if you don't know them, you want to drop in on other astronauts' video chats and see their families and talk to their friends. You don't care.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, because in space, humans are a precious commodity. And I asked if there was ever bartering around this, like, hey, you can join my video chat with my family for an apple. And Doug says, actually, everybody needs human interaction so much they don't really trade it because it becomes sacred.

GARCIA: And when you get back to Earth, Doug says, your idea of what's valuable is changed forever.

WHEELOCK: You know, birds singing, the wind blowing through the trees, the smell of somebody grilling out, you know, the laughter of children, you know, all these beautiful, beautiful things that we see and we hear and we smell on Earth are all gone. And instead, you have this sterile sound of fans running and the sterile smell of computer hardware, like, sort of like warm plasticky kind of smell, you know.

And when I first got back, I would just, like, stand outside, kind of close my eyes and just listen, you know. It's completely changed my whole perspective, especially rain. I am just, like, fascinated by rain now. I just - the smell of it, the sound of it. I sometimes go out when a light rain - I just kind of like take my dog for a walk in the rain, you know, and just the feel against your skin I took for granted before, you know.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Dave Blanchard and fact-checked by Sam Tai (ph). THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.


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