Lewis Crashes!

n August 22, 1997, a new satellite, part of NASA's "Mission to Planet Earth," was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. On board were instruments to monitor pollution, the state of endangered-species habitats, soil resources, and the environmental impacts of energy pipelines.

Appropriately, it was named after Meriwether Lewis, who set out from Philadelphia on August 31, 1803, bound for the Northwest, with environmental and ecological studies as one of his missions.

Lewis, the satellite, was designed to last three years, but just four days after launch its thrusters misfired, and it went into a slow spin, its solar arrays unable to collect enough energy from the sun to charge its batteries. Within a month it destroyed itself upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.

At a total cost of $64.8 million, the Lewis mission was to have been a model for NASA's "faster, cheaper, better" space missions in the future.

The total cost of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-06, including the value of the land grants awarded to the men, was $136,602.25 in 1806 dollars--a big-ticket item in a national budget of only $9 million.

This brings to mind the question, How many of today's U.S. dollars would be required to equal one 1805 dollar in purchasing power? Some economists reply that the question can't be answered meaningfully because we have no broad base of commodities within which comparisons can be made. Nonetheless, Robert R.Hunt, a leading student of the Lewis and Clark expedition, has made a stab at it:

"An 'impressionistic' comparison can be calculated," Hunt writes, "from tables published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor,Consumer Price Indexes (CPI). Applying the suggested formula for calculating Index changes, $861.50 on average in 1993 would be required for the "equivalent" of one dollar in 1805, measuring "average change in prices over time in a fixed market basket of goods and services" for all urban consumers (obviously quite distinct from frontier exchanges)."1

1. Mr. Hunt's estimate was footnoted in "Hoofbeats & Nightmares: A Horse Chronicle of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," We Proceeded On, Vol.21, No. 1 (February 1995), p. 7.