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Winning support for increased NASA funding may require putting the size of the agency’s current budget in a broader perspective. (credit: J. Foust)

Putting NASA’s budget in perspective

“I think we should solve our problems here on Earth before we go into space.”

This line, or some facsimile of it, has probably been heard countless times by just about every advocate of space exploration. For many people, it seems to sum up the totality of their thinking on the subject. Not a few politicians invoke it on those rare occasions when space exploration comes up in political discourse.

In October of 2006, on the 49th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, CBS News anchor Katie Couric summarized this attitude when she concluded her nightly broadcast by saying, “NASA’s requested budget for 2007 is nearly $17 billion. There are some who argue that money would be better spent on solid ground, for medical research, social programs or in finding solutions to poverty, hunger and homelessness… I can’t help but wonder what all that money could do for people right here on planet Earth.”

When space advocates hear this argument, it is difficult not to become irritated or even a little angry. When something that one cares about a great deal is treated with such disparagement, getting upset is a natural reaction. However, responding with irritation and anger does not help and, if anything, merely strengthens the other person in his or her belief that space exploration is not something that should be a national priority.

For every $1 the federal government spends on NASA, it spends $98 on social programs. In other words, if we cut spending on social programs by a mere one percent, we could very nearly double NASA’s budget.

It’s important for space advocates to understand that this opinion is held by people not because they are hostile to space exploration, but because they lack sufficient information about it. Thanks to the media, which generally covers space-related stories only when something goes horribly wrong, a general impression has been created that space exploration does nothing more than produce a rather small amount of scientific information, of no practical use to anybody, at enormous cost to the taxpayer. Once people have settled into a comfortable belief about something, getting them to change their opinion is far from an easy task.

It is obvious to those who are knowledgeable about the potential of a robust space program that, far from diverting resources away from efforts to solve Earth’s problems, the answers to many of our problems are to be found in space. However, for the purposes of this essay, we shall limit ourselves to examining how the funding for NASA stacks up when compared to the various programs that are often cited as more deserving than the space agency.

According to budget documents obtained from the Government Printing Office, the national budget for 2007 totals about $2.784 trillion. At $16.143 billion, spending on NASA accounts for 0.58% of this. Compare this to NASA’s allocation during the mid-1960s when, despite the pressures of the war effort in Vietnam and President Johnson’s Great Society programs, NASA spending made up more than five percent of the federal budget.

How does NASA’s budget compare with the amount of money the federal government spends on social programs? In the 2007 budget, the funding for social programs (calculated here as the budgets for the Department of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Social Security, Agriculture, and Labor) adds up to a whopping $1.581 trillion. For every $1 the federal government spends on NASA, it spends $98 on social programs. In other words, if we cut spending on social programs by a mere one percent, we could very nearly double NASA’s budget.

The naysayers often speak as if the country’s social problems would be solved if only we took the money given to NASA and devoted it to social programs. Does anyone seriously believe that increasing spending on social programs from $1.581 trillion to $1.597 trillion would make any appreciable difference?

Note also that we are only talking about federal spending here. Not included in these estimates are the vast amounts of money that state and local governments spend on social programs. Needless to say, state and local government funding of space exploration is negligible.

The idea of NASA money being diverted away from social programs is the most common proposal by those who would divert NASA’s funding. But how does NASA compare to other big government expenditures? Compare, for example, the NASA budget with the United States defense budget.

When you look at the numbers, the notion that we should “solve our problems on Earth before we go into space” is revealed as a blatant non sequitur.

The 2007 budget allocates roughly $609 billion to defense, not including the budget for the Department of Homeland Security. This is nearly 38 times the amount of money spent on NASA. If you include funding for the Department of Homeland Security, defense spending adds up to $652.5 billion, which is more than 40 times NASA’s budget. While few question the need to maintain a strong military in an uncertain age, some might consider it excessive for the United States to spend more on its military than the next fifteen biggest defense spenders put together, especially as most of them are American allies. Furthermore, there certainly are a great number of military programs of questionable value, as well as many sound military programs whose price tags nevertheless raise eyebrows.

As one anecdotal example, consider that each B-2 stealth bomber cost the US taxpayer roughly $2.2 billion. Then consider that the New Horizons robotic mission to Pluto, which will answer fundamental questions about the solar system, was nearly canceled for lack of funds. The total cost of the New Horizons mission, including the launch vehicle, added up to $650 million. In other words, the New Horizons mission to Pluto cost less than a third the cost of a single B-2 bomber.

Then there is the matter of paying the interest on the national debt. As I write this essay, according to the US Treasury office, the United States is in debt to the tune of $8,835,268,597,181.95. Merely paying the interest on this massive load of debt every year costs a fair amount of money. In 2006, the federal government had to allocate about $400 billion to this task, which adds up to more than 23.5 times the amount of NASA’s 2007 allocation. As the debt is continually increasing, these interest payments will only continue to grow.

One can argue forever over the merits of government social programs, how much we should be spending on our military, or how much the government should rely on borrowed money. What one cannot argue about, however, is that space exploration gets a very, very small slice of the pie. Compared to the behemoths of government spending, NASA is a pigmy. That it achieves so much with such a small share of the federal budget is astonishing.

When it comes to funding space exploration, it is time for space advocates to stop playing defense and start playing offense.

When you look at the numbers, the notion that we should “solve our problems on Earth before we go into space” is revealed as a blatant non sequitur. Even assuming that the solving of social or geopolitical problems was merely a matter of allocating sufficient money to those problems—a notion which is highly questionable in itself—it is clear that diverting NASA money to other programs would make little if any difference.

When it comes to funding space exploration, it is time for space advocates to stop playing defense and start playing offense. While not slackening our efforts to protect the funding of critical NASA projects, we must also begin to push for increases in funding for space exploration. We must begin to reframe and recast the entire debate in Washington on this issue, so that the politicians start thinking in terms of “how much can we spend” for space exploration, rather than “how much can we cut” from space exploration.

To conclude with a final observation, recall that NASA spending made up more than five percent of the federal budget during the heady days of the Apollo program. If it received five percent of the federal budget today, its annual funding level would be $139.2 billion dollars. Imagine what the space agency could do if it had that level of support.

Let’s make it happen.


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