“This Administration has never really faced up to where we are going in space… As a result, NASA is both drifting and lobbying for bigger things — without being able to focus realistically on what it should be doing.”
White House staff assistant Clay Thomas Whitehead, February 1971

What should we be doing with respect to our space program? At its peak — the mid-1960s — the US government spent somewhere around 20% of its non-military discretionary spending on NASA and space science/exploration. Today?

Image credit: OMB Historical Budget Tables.

Image credit: OMB Historical Budget Tables.

That number is down to 3%, the lowest it’s ever been. As far as our priorities as a nation go, is this right?

In an enraging talk at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting, John M. Logsdon argued that we should be happy, as a community, that we still get as much funding as we do, despite all the we could (and won’t) accomplish if our funding would increase.

Image credit: NASA / Science@NASA.

Image credit: NASA / Science@NASA.

Needless to say, I think we need to rethink this defeatist point of view. What’s your opinion?


  1. #1 eric
    January 5, 2015

    Well, what do you think about that?

    I’d like to see some R&D (I guess mainly D) go into a shuttle replacement; i.e., a reusable launch vehicle. Plus other systems that can lower the cost per kg lifted into orbit that that should entail (but didn’t with the shuttle). Cost sharing with industry to get it done, if needed. In terms of long-term strategies for space and planetary exploration – both human and remote – I think we need to reduce the “entry cost” to space so that a much wider group of nations and corporations will consider funding missions, science, etc.

    That may not be sexy, as it doesn’t directly get us any new understanding of the universe or even our solar system. But its kinda like unblocking the door to bigger and better things.

  2. #2 Johan
    January 5, 2015

    Unfortunately the outlook in Europe looks dim as well. Countrys struggling with debt and now we might even get an arms race with Russia. This really doesnt help the ESA funding.

    But if Europe and the US stopped spending money on arm then perhaps we can be on Jupiter in 3 years 🙂

    Happy new science year!!

    Kind regards

  3. #3 Joseph Karpinski
    Syracuse, New York
    January 5, 2015

    Well, I think it’s time to change our model.
    The LHC brought funding and partners from all over the world.
    We need to change our U.S. only approach, and include others.
    A real partnership with the ESA, as well as with India, China, Russia, Japan, UK, etc etc.
    Share in the costs. Share in the achievements.
    Leverage “Best of Breed” practices that industry has been using for years.
    Most published scientific articles are group efforts, that in many cases contain contributions from others all over the world.
    It’s time to change our approach to space exploration.
    Start as a collaboration among friends.

  4. #4 S Call
    Earthbound for now
    January 5, 2015

    A prelude to the United States landing on the Moon was a bold vision articulated regarding that mission, its purpose and benefits. The purpose and benefits were visionary but readily understood by the citizenry. As an initial step to garnering enthusiasm and support for further, manned space exploration, a vision must again be articulated. Saying, “We want to land people on Mars,” is merely stating what the activity is, not stating what the purpose and benefits are, especially in the context of a well-articulated long term plan. Some people are very motivated and enthused simply by the idea; but other people require a richer articulation of why. This articulation should be well-rounded, including both practical and personal reasons of interest that appeal to more than just enthusiasts. If you are reading this, probably you have some off-the-cuff ideas, like I do. However, someone must craft an extraordinary version of this vision with its attendant appeals before the hominids on this planet, who once walked elsewhere than on Earth, again look up and think, more or less collectively, “Let’s go there!”

  5. #5 Rick Chandler
    January 6, 2015

    Don’t agree at all.

    First of all, the analysis is very flawed. The main article (not the synopsis), shows a graph of amount of NASA funding, adjusted to 2009 dollars, and then is followed by the statement “that’s a really misleading graph. The value of a dollar has changed, what we can accomplish with what amount of money has changed”. The graph accounted for that already by normalizing the values to 2009 GDP. The articles analysis of the graph is misleading, the graph took care to portray its data well.

    So, the article is whining that the overall federal budget has ballooned and NASA didn’t get inflated at the same rate. NASA didn’t get any poorer when all is said and done. This really is like the rich kid who is annoyed that he now has siblings, and while he’s not getting anything less than before, he’s whining that he’s no longer getting quite the same percentage of his parents attention and money.

    The real problem is that we’ve made one off accomplishments in the 60s that we’ve yet to commoditize. While I do find that space exploration has tremendous value, I get a bit disgruntled about the lack of progress in bringing down the cost. Computer based technology advances at a major clip because the cost of doing a specific activity drops drastically year over year. Satellites are absurdly expensive–the underlying components (radios, sensors, computers) can be crudely coupled together for a couple of thousands. If it followed the trends of more competitive capitalistic industries, the sky would be flooded with vibrant rich industry of satellites enabling all sorts of cool applications. Fuel costs aside, the cost of getting someone back to the moon or to Mars or getting a probe somewhere in space should be a small, tiny fraction of what it was in the 60s and the reality of the matter is that it’s not. If NASA wants to accomplish more, they need to be better at using their extraordinarily rich level of funding. Leverage commodity components from other industries whenever possible. If what they need isn’t widely sourced, figure out strategies to make it more widely sourced. As a crude example, the more widely carbon fiber is used, the less it will cost.

    I think the current strategy of NASA being an organizing hub to private sector activity has the best chance of delivering results. NASA does have a valuable role to play both in organizing and focusing the private sector activity as well as leading. They are the dream concept prototype lab. However, if we want to have hundreds of trips to the moon, mars, or beyond every year, that will never be economically feasible from an organization such as NASA–that will be a cut throat, highly competitive private sector that relentlessly drives the cost down in order to squeeze a profit from the process.

  6. #6 Owen
    Hamburg, Europe, Earth
    January 6, 2015

    Dont forget the space race was millitary spending.

    Intercontinental Bolistic Missiles (ICBM) where paralell developments.

  7. #7 G
    January 6, 2015

    Re. Joseph @ 3 and S.Call @ 4: YES to both.

    Different approaches are needed for different audiences, and coalition-building is essential. So far we have two broad categories of interest: practical (usually financially-oriented, e.g. business interests) and visionary (usually knowledge-oriented and with philosophical implications).

    But there is also a third, having to do with the emotional appeal to average people, making it real to them. Think of all the cultural media that were involved in the 1960s, making space travel exciting to some, and almost “cozy” to others: the human-interest stories, the popular songs with space-related themes, frequent films with uplifting or thought-provoking plots, even children’s cartoons and toys, etc. etc. I don’t know if/how we can duplicate that today, but I have a wild idea:

    Consider the psychological effect that space travel has had on numerous astronauts: giving them a “new view” of Earth in the cosmos, very often quasi-spiritual. Now consider Virgin Galactic flights with influential cultural figures onboard, such as filmmakers, popular music stars, novelists, and the like. What happens when they get the “new view”…? Will they come back to Earth evangelizing for space exploration? I’d be willing to bet that enough of them would, to make a difference.

    Will Virgin Galactic offer free trips to people in those positions? If not, then perhaps we, by which I mean the entire community of people with an interest in promoting space exploration, should take up collections to send them. Million-dollar tickets for millionaires, paid for by us worker-bees, might seem like the height of folly, but they might also provide the biggest bang-for-buck and a very substantial multiplier effect. Yes? No? Not even wrong? Or perhaps worth a try?

  8. #8 Wow
    January 6, 2015

    The LHC brought funding and partners from all over the world.

    And a hell of a lot of scaremongering (often xtian, generally amerkin) and extra expense in attempting to prove to those unwilling to accept any proof that the LHC WOULD NOT explode the world into a black hole.

    You see, funding to LHC took prestige and money from the american version. The scientists were miffed in the USA, but little more, and just as happy that there was progress going on somewhere. But the general populace can be politicised by “news” and a noisy section were whipped into frenzy.

    There’s nothing so good that politics and fake news can’t put a spoke into…

  9. #9 llDayo
    United States
    January 6, 2015

    I think NASA needs to launch a PR campaign before the next presidential election. This would get more people informed as to what they have accomplished and what has been contributed to society as a result. A quick Google search brought up a short list: http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/technologies/spinoffs.html#.VKwYZSvF9g0

    I know there’s more than that though. These things should be flaunted to the public which would hopefully influence them into pushing people into office that are more willing to spend on its future.

  10. #10 MattW2
    January 6, 2015

    I think it’s fair to ask, if NASA is getting 50% of the world’s funding and the rest of the world is going to the Moon, why is it unreasonable to expect that we would go as well? There are two possible answers. Perhaps the rest of the world has an unrealistic impression of the complexity of the problem and their own capabilities. Or, perhaps our own space agency has turned into a bureaucratic morass that is incapable of finishing large projects without spending ridiculous sums of money. For sure the former is a factor, but there is plenty of evidence that the latter dominates.

    I think we are victims of the unstoppable hand of history in this case. NASA built the pyramids. They drove the golden spike. They defined the nation for all future generations. But once they were done, we could not throw the heroes out on the street, and we certainly could not let them keep the checkbook. So everything that has happened in human spaceflight since about 1970 has been one big retirement party and career transition program. It’s a colossal waste of time and money to pretend otherwise.

    But hope is not lost. There are many bright and hungry people out there who can make the next giant leap given the right support structure and incentives.

  11. #11 eric
    January 6, 2015

    @10: there’s a third answer which definitely plays into the cost calculation. We tend to be more cautious/safety-oriented than, say, China. ‘Doing X with a greatly reduced risk of human fatality’ is much more expensive than just plain old ‘doing X.’
    In fact this valuation of human life carries over into many aspects of US and western culture. The FDA takes longer to approve drugs than its European counterparts. Many drugs the Europeans approve, we never do because we do not tolerate risks that they do. And as a more blatant example, IIRC the average settlement for the loss of a human like in the US is $2 million…while in contrast, Airasia just offered the families of their plane crash victims $24,000 per victim. A two order of magnitude difference in how much a human life is worth translates into a space program that is going to be far more expensive to accomplish the same goals.

  12. #12 Sinisa Lazarek
    January 6, 2015

    for US economically it’s an easy fix… stop with the military rule and expansion. it’s politically impossible, but you already have the money, just build probes and telescopes instead of jet bombers or whatever else.

    i.e. … a single F-22 costs around $300 million… srsly.. just one plane.. with maintenance and everything else it almost doubles… so for just 2 F-22 you get the whole Rosetta mission from start to end. Just 2 planes…

    now imagine .. just for fun.. 10 planes, 10 tanks and 10 CBM maintenance cost per year…. how many space shuttles, telescopes, accelerators and whatever you can wish for…. for just one year.. and the reality is that noone would even notice 10 planes, 10 tanks and 10 cbm’s gone from inventory….

    i guess the sad part is how miniscule scientific cost is in comparison to how much money is blown on idiocy like war. and yet not a single ruler of any nation in the modern history went for more science and less weapons.

  13. #13 DominicConnor
    January 7, 2015

    one of the wrong assumptions here is that the cost of space should be going up ?

    In what other field of engineering has so little price//performance been achieved in the last 40 years ?

    Not just computers, but “mature” technologies like car engines and water pumps are vastly more efficient, powerful and cheaper.

    But NASA isn’t failing, it is working as designed. It’s job is to spread pork from the Federal Government around as many states as possible and to subsidise the aerospace industry. Thus the more money it spends and the less it actually achieves, the better for the elected representatives who control funding.

    When we look at the few good things NASA actually achieves, they should not be seen as the actual goals, but more like the sideline charity activities of a major corporation, like WalMart or Microsoft. Both support initiatives we like, but their business is to enrich others, as is NASA which enriches many people who then make political donations.

  14. #14 thomas w. mcguire jr.
    Montgomery, AL
    January 7, 2015

    NASA should be an international organization–not an American one. All governments should be involved in space exploration and contributing to any space endeavor. A start is for America to give up its World at war mentality, and get into diplomacy and making the World a better place.. An international NASA would be a good beginning.

  15. #15 eric
    January 7, 2015

    Dominic @13: you’re the second person to compare it to the computing industry, but I think that’s an unfair comparison. There were no physics limitations to putting more smaller transistors on smaller chips (or at least, we hadn’t reached them for the first several decades); there are immutable physics issues associated with getting a mass to escape velocity: it’s roughly 60,000 kJ per kg, and no technological innovation we could ever make is going to change that. NASA has to find ways to make the way we translate that energy requirement into lifting work cheaper, because they will never be able to do something analogous to what the computer industry did and actually reduce the energy required (i.e. to do some type of calculation). Without some radical new change in physics, of course.

    In any event, IMO a fairer comparison may be between the computer industry circa 1950-2000 and the aviation/rocketry industry circa 1903 (the Wright Brothers’ flight) and 1953. And yeah, the aviation and space industry showed equivalently enormous progress and innovation during it’s first 50 years. It went from gliders going 100 feet per flight to jets, ICBMs, and nearly satellites (Sputnik was 1957).

    I’d like the cost of getting into space to go down. But I think its a much harder problem than building a better water pump or the next generation Intel i8 chip. I’m not even sure how to do it: we have to answer the basic science question of “what does a cheaper lift look like” before we can answer the engineering problem of “how do I build the cheaper lift solution.” Scramjet to reduce the amount of rocket boost needed? Who knows.

  16. […] also from other data, see for instance this plot showing the budget available to NASA (from "Starts with a Bang").Note how the peak in human spaceflights coincides with the peak in the resources destined to […]

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