Monday, September 14, 2009

NASA not as expensive as you think

The American people spend $18 billion a year on space exploration. That's a lot of money.

It's not as much money as some people think. Whenever we engage the public on issues related to NASA policy or spending, there's a steady stream of complaints about waste. Some people sense space exploration is over-funded. Others note it's going to take NASA 15 years or more to repeat the moon landing completed in half that time in the 1960s.

To be sure, NASA spends a lot of money and no doubt wastes some of it. We've told you here about the boondoggle programs, cost overruns and vanishing government property. But that's the case with most big government agencies.

Yes, NASA is moving at a slower pace with its current exploration program than was done in the 1960s. But, the circumstances are much different. In those days, President Kennedy and his successors made landing men on the moon an urgent national priority, a key geopolitical goal in a dangerous Cold War.

That urgency demanded a huge investment of national resources. The government poured money into NASA. At the height of development of the Saturn V super-rocket and the Apollo spacecraft, NASA ate up almost 6 percent of the U.S. budget.

By the mid-1970s, with less urgency, the space agency's share of national spending fell to 1 percent. It's been sliding ever since. Today, we spend about 0.5 percent of the national budget on NASA. With that money, NASA designed, constructed and operated five of the most versatile spaceships ever flown -- the space shuttles -- as well as a permanent science outpost in space, the Hubble Space Telescope and an armada of probes scouting all corners of our solar system.

Not all of that NASA money is for space exploration. Billions are spent on research to making airplanes safer and more efficient, advancing supercomputing, educating kids in science and math, and studying Earth's environment and climate.

That's why NASA's current program to send humans back to the moon is stretched out over a longer period of time. It's not funded at the same level Apollo was in the 1960s. Budget reductions by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama are the primary reasons why the launch dates for new Ares I rockets and Orion spacecraft keep moving back -- from 2012 to as late as 2018. The program never got the funding originally pledged.

A committee of space experts has told the White House that without an extra $3 billion a year, NASA can't field a human spaceflight program that continues to advance over the long haul.

So, NASA's budget would grow to $21 billion. With that money, the panel says NASA could even extend space shuttle flights and the International Space Station by about five years each while delaying a return to the moon -- or some other target -- until 2025 or so. And that's just one of several viable options. They say the moon-landing date would be the same or later if NASA sticks with its current plan.

That would raise NASA's share of the U.S. budget to 0.6 percent.


Anonymous said...

Great Column, John. Perhaps you could make a couple of extra points in your future colums:
1. Out of the billions in NASA's budget, NOT ONE CENT is spent in space. All of the money is spent here on earth.
2. I believe NASA has something like a 7:1 ratio on cost/return on the money it spends.
3. The economic benefits of NASA affect the entire planet, not just the US.
4. NASA is the Ultimate Stimulus Program, with real tangable results, not failed banks and sinking car companies.

Thanks for your efforts!

Rick Steele
Sarasota, Florida

Anonymous said...

Even after all these years NASA still has not figured out how to launch and/or land a shuttle in the rain and the best thay can come up with for heat shields are glue-on tiles, and chunks keep falling off every time they launch. Considering these factors, I think the idea that they are who manned space exploration is dependant on dooms the whole idea from the start.

Anonymous said...

Great Column John...Good points Rick. oh and lets not forget the 750 billion dollars (not to mention young lives) so far on the war in Iraq!

Todd Halvorson said...

Very cool shot of pad 39B.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't realized the size of the budget in the 60s - over ten times what NASA now gets as a fraction of our national budget!!

I like the comments from the first anon...I think you got the cost/return inverted, but I think you're right on the magnitude.

It might be an interesting bit to put some other numbers up there. Say, how much U.S. citizens spend each year on golf, haircuts and dos, pizza, or some other silly thing. It might put the whole budget in perspective. If you posted the amount spent on tobacco, you'd really get noticed.

Of course, that comment about landing in the rain is pure silly.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the comments about landing in the rain and glue-on tiles show a real lack of knowledge about the shuttle and the technologies involved. Unfortunately, most people would rather remain ignorant and spout uninformed drivel than to actually go and find out what the Space Program has done for them, and the truly amazing technological advancements that have been made and that have in turn become huge benefits for the public as spin-offs. NASA is worth the extra $3 billion, especially when you consider the billions already wasted in Iraq and on bailing out Wall Street.

Matt Wronkiewicz said...

The key to more funding for NASA is credibility. It's been decades since they last finished a project without blowing the budget or de-scoping the requirements. What they really needed right now was an Ares I on track for its first flight in 2011. When the Vision for Space Exploration was announced back in 2004, NASA was given yet another chance to do something great in outer space. Yet they managed to take the program completely off the rails even before Congress had a chance to under-fund it. Now the HSF panel is asking for more money for NASA, and it's going to be a really hard sell. Taxpayers have been promised the Moon too many times.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the 11:32 AM anon, your 'facts' are wrong.
1)It's not that NASA can't launch/land in bad weather but for safety's sake they choose not to. Spaceflight is a dangerous undertaking, and any risk that they can buy down they do.
2)The 'glue on tiles' are very efficient and work just fine. The 'chunks' that fall off are pieces of foam insulation on the ET. I believe that I heard we have more issues with the foam breaking loose now than before because a)they switched to a more environmentally friends adhesive since pieces of the ET fall back to earth and land in the ocean, and b)we're looking for it now post Columbia.

Anonymous said...

We spend about 0.5 percent of the national budget on NASA. It is very true. They don't even have enough money to paint the walls in some of their buildings. What a shame....Running the space program on their budget is like trying to build a car with three wheels, a lawn mower engine, and a rubber band for the parts. A shame...

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Matt. NASA has no credibility right now. They have to reinvent the wheel with each new project. The Ares I is just another example of bad decision making. We have existing rockets with better capability than the Ares I and instead of modifying them we have to spend 35 billion to reinvent something new. Ditto with the Mars rovers, two perfectly good rovers exploring Mars and now NASA is building a new completely different rover, Mars Science Laboratory, which is years behind and billions over budget. With the billions wasted I wonder how many Spirit/Opportunity type rovers could be doing science on Mars. Whoever is making the decisions on new missions should be removed. The American taxpayer can only handle so many boondoggles. As much as I love rockets and going to the moon, I say NASA needs to be reorganized and bring in some new management.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to cmment on the person who said NASA can't land the shuttle in the rain and tiles keep falling off.

Tha shuttle can land in rain, everytime it passes through a cloud it gets rained on and then lands, now since the craft has no power and is a glider as designed in the 1970's it must have decent climate conditions to land.

With only one shot at landing isn't that the right thing to do or are you so foolish that the lives of people really don't matter to you?

As for tiles falling off, Not one tile has ever just fallen off a shuttle since the first few flights and none of them created a hazard for reentry. There is a foam problem that damages some tiles on launch, with only one exception that problem does not cause too much concern. Now we have a shuttle that is safer than when it was designed and it should keep flying for a while longer/

So play your negitivity game somewhere you're more suited like a nice safe video game.

CharlieA said...

John is The Man!!

Shame that a waterproof TPS was never invented.
Are the troops at OPF still spraying ScotchGard on the Orbiters before rollout?
There is a classicly funny PAO picure taken prior to STS-1, that shows the Scotch "Gaurd" hard at work. Les Gaver's gang used to have such an eye for cute pictires.

Anonymous said...

One aspect of the civilian US space programme not mentioned enough is that it showcases the best of America. I don't want to dwell on US foreign policy, which is part of the reason why the world is so troubled, but the space programme is worth every penny. I hope Obama and his administration take this into account when deciding NASA's new mission.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't worked at one of the space centers then you can say NOTHING about NASA and how useful they are. You didn't mention the sleeping employees, union strongholds, incompetent workers with old technology, etc, etc.

17 billion goes into this "hole" every year. There is no return on the investment. There's the waste.

Fred D Bartleson Jr said...

It seems a shame to abandon the space program after just completing the space station. On the other hand nothing will be gained by going back to the moon. Manned flight to Mars is a dumb idea, since radiation will more than likely kill the travelers. SO-- Why not begin construction of the Starship Enterprise, while studying propulsion, artificial gravity, and radiation shielding etc. The Space station could be used to house the initial construction personnel with a small ferry to go back and forth to the Enterprise

CharlieA said...

re' Fred Bartleson -

How? You are talking two/three centuries of technological development, and several thousand orders of magnitude social development. God bless you for having an imagination, anyway.
re' Mars, I'd be more worried about calcium depletion, than radiation, pal.

loutefree said...

Why not outsource all NASA rocket building an launching to China or India. Jeb Bush out source other Florida gov't jobs it would save a lot of Tax money and make our space program more American. like our other industries the corporate suppliers would make a bigger profit.

Anonymous said...