NASA News and Public Sentiment

Lots of Handwringing Maybe Not Warranted

So, Monday February 1, the U.S. budget and NASA’s part of it will be announced and the REAL public discussions will begin.  There has been the most amazing amount of speculation, hand-wringing, and downright whining over what’s coming, and I think some of it is unwarranted.  I’ve been watching it gather momentum all week, and wondering just when it was that people lost common sense and began speculating wildly?

At this point (Sunday night) we really DON’T know everything that’s going to be announced. We do know that the “return to the Moon” strategy outlined by George W.  Bush (which was massively underfunded, but he got political props anyway for coming up with an idea whose time was long past) is on the chopping block.

That’s a biggie, and to be honest, I’m not sure it’s an entirely bad thing.  It will force us (Americans) as a nation to consider what we want out of our space program.  At least, it will force those of us who CARE about space exploration and science to think about it.And, I think that this may be a golden opportunity to come up with some space access vehicles that make sense (since the shuttles will be decommissioned very soon).  Do we really want what the Ares and Constellation programs were offering?  Is there a better way?  Can we take what has been accomplished so far and maybe change it to make it work better?

In space, where are we going? And, why are we going there?  Those are questions that this budget news will engender — and I hope that we in the science community make our voices heard about the next steps the U.S. will make in space.

However, this has not stopped a huge number of people who probably haven’t read the whole budget and don’t have the whole story (including politicians who have to play to their bases) from shrilly screaming that NASA’s budget means the end of the American presence in space. In fact, unless the budget is zeroed out (which I doubt), it means nothing of the sort. It means that NASA’s focus may be shifted to things that give the agency a chance of doing some actual science work.  Not that you can’t do science in space — but, if we’re going to go to space, we need modern, up-to-date ways to get there, not a rehash of what we used in the Apollo days with the serial numbers scrubbed off.

For many other Americans, the news is hardly more important than what kind of coffee to buy when they stop at Starbucks in the morning. I read an interesting fact over and over the past few days — and that is that many Americans think that NASA consumes as much as 24 percent of the federal budget.  I do NOT know where this number comes from, but it’s wrong.  The actual amount of money that goes to NASA is less than ONE PERCENT of the federal budget.

That’s right.  ONE PERCENT.  In 2009, that number came to 0.55 percent of the federal budget. In 2010, the proposed budget may be about 0.52 percent of the federal budget. That folks is one HALF of one percent.  NASA proposed a 2010 budget of 18.7 billion dollars. DO the math and you’ll see that it’s a very small part of the U.S. national budget. Just to give you some idea of how little that is, here are some useful comparisons — I scrounged around the Web and found various sites with numbers about what NASA spends and its relationship to other government and personal spending:

* For every dollar that we spend on NASA, our federal government spends another $98.00 on social programs.  This doesn’t include what states spend on the same programs in-state;

* In 2010, the Department of Defense will spend $664 billion dollars; NASA will spend (if it gets its budget) 18.7 billion;

* To put this more personally, Americans spend $97 billion dollars a year on beer. We spend over half a trillion dollars on gambling; we spend more $27 billion on pizza;

* Another way to look at NASA’s budget — Bernie Madoff scammed $50 BILLION dollars with his phony investment schemes;

Now, there’s no arguing that$18.7 billion is a lot of money — but look what we get for it:  employment for hundreds of thousands of Americans at NASA centers, at the contractors who serve NASA (and yes, I do work for NASA as a contractor from time to time), and for the support industries that work with those contractors. That money in turn gets spent in the marketplace (groceries, toys, booze, cars, goodies), gets invested in stocks and retirement funds, it pays state and local taxes, and unlike the money that gets spent on beer, alcohol, food, etc. it doesn’t have a further cost to society.  What we spend on alcohol and food and drugs almost always costs society more later on (in terms of medical care, etc.).  NASA money gets spent to create technologies that let you call your mom from across the country, tweet to your buds, save the life of a child with a heart condition, forecast our weather, and fly safely from Point A to Point B.

It brings science to a new generation of Americans — the very ones we want to send to space, to create the new technologies we’ll need for space exploration AND for the ground-based infrastructures that will support it. Our country IS in a crisis of science education due to the past decade of poor treatment by an administration more interested in evangelical votes and corporate contributions and banking deals than science education.  NASA is in a good position to spur a whole lot of interest in continued science education.  Heck, it spurred ME when I was a kid and many people in the generations who grew up watching Moon landings and Voyager missions, etc. have grown up to participate in the missions that followed. We got good jobs working on things like Hubble Space Telecope and Mars missions, etc.

And, as many of us know, NASA creates and supports technological spinoffs that are at work in our homes, offices, hospitals, airports, and so many other places.  Your cell phone, your computer, the stuff in your house — everything you touch very likely owes some aspect of its existence to NASA-related technologies.

I think you get the point.

The other point I want to drive home here is that even if the Constellation and/or Ares programs are shut down or drastically changed — it’s NOT the end of our involvement in space and I wish people would stop with this “sky is falling” mentality. We are still exploring the solar system, building things in space, and employing lots of bright people on the ground. Americans will continue to do that.  So, would all the people (politicians and pundits included) who are wringing their hands over the changes in NASA’s budget please calm down?  Let’s calmly and rationally look at this new budget and the possible changes in direction for NASA and see what the upside is.  The time to scream bloody murder isn’t here, just yet.

Note: my good buds Nancy Atkinson and Phil Plait also have discussed these issues in their blogs — Nancy’s from 2009 and Phil from just earlier today. Check ’em out!


  1. Dave Broviak

    OK, I’ll wait.

    I am only concerned about what I read in an article that said we may see a shift away from NASA owning what it pays for. This probably sounds strange but I have seen in the last 20 years what happens when consultants and contractors ‘move in’ and a government organization just oversees the operation.

  2. ccp

    I don’t disagree with you — but bear in mind that NASA has worked with contractors for a long time and much of the time the materials they produce end up being “owned” by NASA. In my case that is certainly true. And, NASA’s mandate was never to keep the innovation to itself, which is why we see so many spinoffs from NASA-engendered technologies.

    Let’s see what happens!

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