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The Declining Nasa Budget: a space oddity

Aryan Jagtap explores the factors behind reductions in space research spending in the US and considers whether extra funding would be worthwhile or a fiscal black hole


July 16th, 1969, is a date firmly etched into the history of our species as a defining moment of human endeavour and achievement. Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the Moon and heralded a new era for humanity – one in which we would roam the stars, explore other planets, and leave behind our state of Earthly confinement. It was in every sense a ‘giant leap’.


That, at least, was the collective sentiment back then, over half a century ago; sentiment that paid for the staggering $25.4 billion cost of the Apollo 11 program – about $152 billion in today’s dollars, representing contributions of up to 4.4% of GDP in the 60’s. Why then is NASA’s current budget just $22.6 billion – less than half a percent of GDP?


The space race

It is poetic to imagine post-war American society driven towards scientific endeavour and pursuits for their own sake, but the reality remains more tedious. The US and the USSR were caught in the middle of the Cold War, and the race to conquer space became a pursuit for power and a sense of victory. The Soviets beat the US to space initially, sending the first spacecraft into orbit in 1957 and then the first manned spacecraft in 1961. The moon was the obvious next step, and the US managed to clinch a decisive victory there.


How much should we contribute now?

After the moon landings, it seems apparent that our collective interest in space decreased; and the amount of public money devoted to space exploration and research has consequently fallen. One factor is that space has recently been taken up by private enterprise, with companies such as SpaceX, Amazon and Virgin Atlantic building and looking to drive our endeavours to Mars. The role of private enterprise, however, will likely always be limited: simply because the risk and margin for error is so high, which often yields very low assurances of profit.


This is where  the role of government comes in, so how can the US justify that less than half a percent of US spending goes towards space research?  On the contrary, since they are not caught in a space race with another global superpower, how can the US justify $22.6 billion on space?


Opportunity costs

One of the staples of virtually every climate change demonstration is someone holding a poster with the epigram, ‘THERE IS NO PLANet B’. This echoes the common sentiment whereby we need to devote our focus to our planet, because it is the only home we have. Diverting more funds towards space takes away money that can be spent at home, trying to resolve issues such as climate change – arguably a much more pressing issue. Space is also notoriously difficult to work with and the possibilities for quick progress are low. In other words, it is relatively intractable, which should be a clear economic indicator of something that should not be given high priority.


On the other hand, the practical difficulties and low possibilities for progress can be seen as all the more reason to invest in space now, since it is not going to get any easier in the future without work now. And it doesn’t take much money to contribute meaningfully to space research. A few years ago, Bill Nye wrote to then-President Obama asking for $1.5 billion dollars annually to help search for life on other worlds and find habitable planets – 0.03% of the current US budget. Even though we don’t have a ‘PLANet B’, we want that to change. That will be more likely to happen if we pursue it with the same tenacity with which we pursued the moon landing in the midst of the cold war.   


There are, of course, competing viewpoints based on the intrinsic value of scientific exploration for its own sake. Earth’s seabed is relatively unexplored, and the world of the deepest oceans is as alien to us as the world of space; if more money does go towards exploratory science, should it not go towards our own planet? 


Is there life on Mars?
The prospect of life on another planet does promise to change the course of humanity in a significant way. In the end, our visions and values matter. Many scientists believe that becoming an interplanetary species is our next ‘giant leap’, a leap we should be warming up for now. Whether you agree, or believe that we should focus predominantly on Earth itself, might influence where you land  on this debate. If we have some genuine collective vision for our future in space – worth going after now – then perhaps we should work harder for it. If, however, that vision is clouded by the fog of problems and endeavours closer to home, then half a percent of the spending budget might just suffice until that fog is cleared.


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