With the United States in a transition phase in space exploration, there has recently been lively debate in Congress regarding NASA’s 2014 budget (though massively overshadowed by Benghazi, the IRS, and the George Zimmerman trial). The budget was released in April as part of the Administration’s overall 2014 budget request to Congress.
Is it enough?
Consider today’s environment, in which on one hand American astronauts suddenly have to humbly thumb rides on old-technology Soyuz rockets to get to the International Space Station (ISS) that the U.S. spearheaded … while on the other hand, many Americans continue to reel from the continuing economic slump. So is the United States spending enough or too much on space exploration?
Reviewing the 2014 NASA budget is the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (chaired by Lamar Smith, R-TX) and its Space Subcommittee on Space (chaired by Steven Palazzo, R-MS). Perhaps following political instincts, they expressed initial concern about the $55 million cut in the proposed 2014 NASA budget compared to 2013. Of course, they and their follow committee members are all from districts in which there are NASA and space supplier facilities.
But, really, that cut is a rather infinitesimal three-tenths of 1 percent of the proposed $17.7 billion spending proposal.
What’s more intriguing to me are two issues: First, how does the Administration’s recent NASA budgets compare with those of the past, and second, what interesting nuggets lay buried in the 2014 proposal?
Not surprisingly, NASA’s largest budgets by far were in the mid-1960s, when America was locked in a Cold War struggle with the Soviets, a conflict that propelled the space race into a critical issue of national security. On an adjusted basis of constant 2007 dollars, NASA’s annual budget then was roughly $33 billion—nearly twice what NASA is spending today. The 1960s’ spending was about 4 percent of the federal budget, compared to about 0.5 percent today (OK, the federal budget is nearly 4 times as big today, in constant dollars).
Again in constant 2007 dollars, NASA spending declined from its mid-1960s highs to about $11 billion in the mid-1970s, then nearly doubled to about $20 billion in 1991, and has since oscillated in the $15-$18 billion range. The 2012 budget was $16 billion in constant 2007 dollars.
But what are quite difficult to evaluate strictly from NASA and government data are the amounts actually spent on space-related exploration, compared to Earth-related projects. For example, about a half billion dollars is spent on aeronautics research.
Don’t get me wrong—when I take my family to Chicago next month, I’ll probably be glad that NASA is making our skies safer.
Personally, I am eagerly awaiting the upcoming House Committee hearings regarding one of the surprising twists that was revealed in the NASA 2014 budget: that NASA intends to not only land on an asteroid as a stepping stone to Mars, but to attempt to “capture” and alter its trajectory.
To quote the NASA budget presentation, “To protect our planet, … send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by 2035.” A later, more detailed explanation implied that the Earth may someday be in danger of being struck by an asteroid and that we need to be prepared to launch a heroic mission to dramatically save mankind.
Are they kidding? The last time I was out at the NASA Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center, I don’t recall any briefing about asteroids headed for Earth. Had the NASA execs just returned from an offsite conference at which the featured entertainment was a 3D/HD version of Armageddon?
I understand and support the rationale for landing on either an asteroid or the Moon before attempting a mission to Mars. But the asteroid capture/toss idea struck me as a cheap and unnecessary attempt to justify an asteroid landing.
So is America spending enough on space exploration?
Those who are still smarting from paying the Russians $50 million for a one-way ticket to the ISS are shouting a resounding no.
Those who believe that history will validate their belief that the Space Shuttle Program’s only accomplishment was to employ 20,000 people are shouting an equally adamant yes.
Where’s the truth? It depends on whom you ask.
In my view, I find it astounding and discouraging that 44 years ago we sent men to the Moon (a distance of about 238,000 miles) with 1960s technology, and since then humans have ventured only about 250 miles from Earth’s surly bonds.
I have closely followed, admired, and reported on the Space Shuttle Program and the ISS initiative. But in 1969, we could send man 1000 times as far into space as we can today!
That doesn’t sound like progress to me.
In my next column, I’ll review survey data that will reveal how the American public feels about space exploration spending.
The opinions expressed above are those solely of the author and do not represent the views of AmericaSpace
Want to keep up-to-date with all things space? Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace