Just before Christmas, Congress announced a new budget… with an unexpectedly large budget for NASA of $19.3 billion dollars, higher than the $18.5 billion Obama was requesting earlier last year. This is a large bonus*, given that it allows NASA to maintain and expand funding for a few of the big projects it’s working on.
Talk to the average person on the street and they think NASA gets about 25% of the US national budget. Which sounds logical, in a way. It’s SPACE. It’s science fiction made real, all kinds of incredibly complex machines and highly trained people to do all kinds of incredibly difficult things. It’s GOTTA be expensive, right?
Wrong, NASA is about 0.5% of the U.S. National Budget. One out of every $200 pays for things like the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and a swarm of Earth-sensing satellites you rarely ever hear about, but contribute to our understanding of the atmosphere, land, sea, and interior of the planet we live on. In reality, the highest NASA’s budget ever was (comparatively), was about 4.4% back in 1966, when it had a $6 billion dollar budget ($44 billion in 2014 dollars). In fact, since the early 1990s, the inflation-adjusted budget has been pretty constant at $20 billion, until 2008 when the market crash decreased the effective budget to around $17 billion. For some context, take a look at this chart from 2011: NASA’s activities, under the “general science” subheading, account for about three times as much as the Forest Service ($5 billion), roughly as much as the administrative operations of the State Department ($9.6 billion), and way less than military R&D ($80 billion).
Or: The Martian brought in $596 million dollars for 21st Century Fox. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter cost $720 million dollars. The Force Awakens has brought in $1.5 billion dollars for Disney, while the entire New Horizons mission to Pluto has cost $650 million dollars. The Dawn space probe’s entire mission to the asteroids Ceres and Vesta, from design to construction to 10 years of operating and data analysis expenses, is $472 million dollars. Or, the Navy version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (F-35C) is $337 million per plane, not including R&D costs or maintenance, and the Navy was (at one point, anyway) buying four (note the discrepancy in price in that article, though).
So on the one hand, an $800 million dollar increase in yearly funding is a big deal for NASA. On the other, it’s not really free reign. The money does come earmarked for specific items, like the Space Launch System (NASA’s return to flight capability) and the James Webb Space Telescope. This time, projects involving the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama seem to have gotten a lot of money… and surprise, one of the driving forces was a senator from Alabama. That just shows you how much influence individual congresspeople can have over NASA’s budget.
This leads to the other problem with NASA’s budget: that congressional influence isn’t always for the better. NASA was specifically directed to build a $349 million dollar vaccuum chamber designed to test a rocket that had already been cancelled. The article I’ve linked to blames this problem on NASA, but really… the problem in that case was a senator who didn’t want NASA jobs moving out of state, so they made a law that required it to be done. That sort of thing happens to the military too, but they have a larger pot of money to play with.
There are other examples – Buzz Aldrin once claimed the Ares rocket (part of the Constellation program, NASA’s 2004-2010 attempt to get us back to the Moon) was essentially a fake, consisting of a Space Shuttle solid rocket booster that’s been proven in multiple flights, mocked up to LOOK like a full Ares rocket. That’s a legitimate way to collect aerodynamic data, but, well, the project was very much behind schedule at that point; they were supposed to be testing a full rocket. The Augustine Commission determined that NASA didn’t have the money necessary to actually meet its goals or timetables.
But basically, NASA’s not even able to use all the budget it HAS, because its goals keep changing every administration (requiring throwing stuff away, or worse- not throwing it away), and because Congress wants it to do specific things it doesn’t need to, because it looks good to have NASA and its highly skilled jobs in their district. And it’s got half the effective budget it did in the 1960s, and many more things to maintain. It’s no wonder we can’t go to Mars any time soon.
*On the other hand, this new budget may be bad news for me, because I’ve heard it will require them to take money out of their astrophysics budget, which funds things like research grants.