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Decades after its Cold War origins, what it NASA’s role today?

Redefining NASA: part 1

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Part 1: old space vs. new space

This is a three-part series of short articles that will examine NASA’s history and current affairs to determine the role it should play in the future of space exploration.

When most people think of space, NASA comes to mind, and rightly so, for the agency has been at the forefront of space innovation and exploration since the birth of the industry. The Apollo program put the first man on the Moon, the Hubble telescope has presented staggering images of the universe, and the Curiosity Mars rover stands as an unprecedented feat of engineering.

NASA’s decline in relevance is not as much NASA failing as it is other actors being successful.

In recent times, however, the role played by NASA has diminished in value, both due to decreased political interest in the United States and because of the rise of other actors and agencies. It seems that the rest of the world has caught up with the United States in the ability to conduct national activities in space. But the proliferation of these other actors has exposed a key weakness inherent in the structure of NASA: it is wrapped in red tape, meaning that it is limited in almost every way because of its ties to the state. NASA’s biggest fundamental weakness is and always has been its unavoidable bureaucracy.

NASA’s decline in importance is directly linked to decreased federal interest. In 1997, government funding of NASA under President Bill Clinton made up 0.9 percent of the national budget; by 2011, that amount had been nearly cut in half, with public funding of the agency adding up to only 0.47 percent under President Barack Obama. Public approval of government spending on NASA and its space programs is and has typically been surprisingly low, with expenditures on issues like healthcare and unemployment taking the majority of public consent. Even in 1970, only 56 percent of Americans thought that the cost of the Apollo 11 Moon landing was worth the amount of money paid. More recent polls show that about 40 percent of Americans think that the amount of government funds contributed to NASA since recent cuts is sufficient, and an additional 30 percent of Americans say that the funding should be further decreased (see Wormald).

NASA’s decline in relevance is not as much NASA failing as it is other actors being successful. Through the past decade, private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing that have proven to be more effective and more promising actors within space exploration. The apparent benefits of the private sector beg the question: why was the responsibility of space exploration ever delegated to a government agency in the first place?

The answer to this question lies in the Cold War origins of state-centric space agencies and the evolution of rockets from weapons to vehicles, which will be addressed in part 2 of this series.


Rogers, Simon. “Nasa Budgets: US Spending on Space Travel since 1958.” The Guardian. 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.

Wormald, Benjamin. “Americans Keen on Space Exploration, Less so on Paying for It.” Pew Research Center. 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.