Should we cut NASA funding?

Counterpoint: Funding a new mission for NASA is funding our future.

To the critics of the space program, greedy astronauts fill their pockets with our hard earned dollars and blast off into space, leaving our children with only rocket fumes for lunch. But to its proponents, space exploration represents a relatively small expenditure that brings positive real world impacts in the form of cutting edge research, crucial data on weather and climate change, thousands of jobs, and more than a few spinoff technologies. The truth is somewhere in between.

Before taking the rockets versus food trade-off too seriously, let’s look at some numbers objectively. The NASA budget is projected to be $18 billion in 2010, half of one percent of the federal budget. To be sure, this is not pocket change. A billion here, a billion there, and soon enough you’re talking about real money. But it is not outsized in comparison to other truly wasteful uses of your tax dollars. Here are but a few egregious examples: $8 billion for missile defense, $16 billion for nuclear weapons, $5 billion for foreign militaries, $12 billion for spy satellites, and $9 billion to reconstruct Iraq that has literally gone missing. You don’t have to look hard to find many more examples. These are the parts of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower was referring to when he made the famous quote that Mr. Yost repurposed for his stirring conclusion. Even if you consider the space program to be a waste, it’s so far from our federal budget’s biggest line item that a little cost-benefit analysis quickly leads you to more fertile ground.

I am as concerned about global poverty as anyone, and would happily put my tax dollars toward increasing non-military foreign aid. However, we have been failing that charge consistently for nearly forty years. In 1970, the advanced countries pledged 0.7 percent of their GNP on development assistance in front of the General Assembly. Today, that would be $100 billion per year, two orders of magnitude more than we are currently spending to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. If Mr. Yost wants to spend more of his tax dollars on this effort, I applaud him. In fact, I will match whatever he personally donated this year to Oxfam, the Heifer Foundation, or a non-religious charity of his choice that works for global poverty alleviation. But to pretend that it’s the fault of the space program that people are still starving in Africa is disingenuous at best. We can, and should, do both.

Space critics are right about one thing, NASA has been rudderless for the last few years. Though charged by the Bush administration to extend the reach of humanity back to the Moon and on to Mars, it was given no additional funding to do so. The civilian space budget has been effectively capped for the last two decades; all aeronautical, biological, and exploration related research fight for the same pool of money. Saddled with an outdated, underpowered and needlessly winged Space Shuttle, the Constellation project proposed a new launch vehicle that would return us to the glory days. However, it ended up like so many projects, behind schedule and over budget. We simply cannot develop new capability, fly the Shuttle to finish building and continue servicing the space station, and do cutting edge research without expanding the budgetary pool. Something has to go; and so, surprise, the federal government established a committee to study the problem.

The Review of Human Space Flight Plans Commission, which included the Aero/Astro department’s own Dr. Edward Crawley as a member, was charged with figuring this out in June 2009. Their report last September laid down the facts on the costs of continuing our current course, and gave five options for future trajectories. They indicated that we cannot achieve our lofty goals on the current funding without sacrificing safety, and a new vision is needed. The Obama Administration took this advice, and what they propose is something that should make even a cold libertarian heart skip a beat.

Their answer to our space budget woes? Cut fat, outsource to private companies and focus on a sustainable future. Instead of running our own nationalized shuttle service to the station, we can let Orbital Sciences and SpaceX do it for us for the low price of $5,000 per kilogram. NASA will refocus its efforts on developing next generation propulsion technologies to get us to far-flung destinations faster, cheaper, and safer than we can with the liquid hydrogen and oxygen propellants that we’ve used since the 1960’s. Robotic precursor missions to the moon and the asteroid belt will help us work out the kinks in the navigation and descent system before we send astronauts. Federal research will push the bounds of the possible and let commercial interests fill in behind it. Mr. Yost wants NASA to look more like MIT? That’s the plan.

But these cost-containment arguments don’t get to the heart of the matter: Why do we maintain a space program? It’s not just for national pride. Although that was certainly a primary factor during the Cold War, it’s not enough anymore to say that we need to beat the Chinese back to the moon. The reason I support the space program is a base and selfish one; we need a backup plan, because this world won’t last forever. We will either continue choking it with greenhouse gases, irradiate it with our terrible weapons, or be blindsided by an asteroid. The odds are calculable, and not in our favor. Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck can’t save us from all of those threats. We need real heroes, like the engineers who toil in anonymity, designing the best damn fuel pump that they can. Heroes like the astronauts who trained on the Space Shuttle that will be cancelled before they get a chance to fly it. And heroes like children who dream big and push themselves to study science and engineering even when the going gets tough.

I, for one, am glad that people still stare up at the stars, even if things still need work here on Earth. How else will we get to the future that we all deserve?