NASA in need

U-Wire and U-Wire

It is 2009 and I am not living in space. This is the future, and I think we are beginning to realize that. Technology has helped us live longer, cross oceans and reach the sky, but what about that fevered dream of one day crossing the stars? In the 1950s, it seemed clear to everyone that it wouldn’t be long before we had Moon colonies and played interstellar baseball, but as the Cold War thawed out, our competitive motivation melted away. We slashed funding into research at NASA, and that’s a problem. The House Science and Technology Committee unanimously passed legislation to reauthorize NASA, H.R. 6063, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008. This legislation encompasses the recommendations and findings from 16 hearings that the Committee held throughout the 110th Congress to review nearly every major aspect of NASA’s programs. ‘NASA has a key role to play in the nation’s innovation agenda, ensuring the future health of our nation’s aviation system, and advancing our efforts to better understand our climate and the changes facing the Earth system,’ Chairman Bart Gordon said. ‘In addition, a properly structured human space flight and exploration program can provide dividends technologically, scientifically, and geopolitically-and is worthy of the nation’s investment in it.’ According to budget documents obtained from the Government Printing Office, the national budget for 2007 totals about $2.784 trillion. At $16.143 billion, NASA’s spending accounts for 0.58 percent 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 5 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 1 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. 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. The fact that NASA 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. 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 5 percent of the federal budget during the heady days of the Apollo program. If it received 5 percent of the federal budget today, its annual funding level would be $139.2 billion.Imagine what the space agency could do if it had that level of support. Let’s make it happen.