BY PATRICK REAR
BOLOGNA, Italy — Just like a family of starving children in anticipation of dinner, every year as the federal government crafts its budget the myriad agencies, departments, and bureaus squabble over who will get a share of the pie. With the global credit crunch these past few years limiting the available resources to distribute, most agencies can only hope to hold on to the funding they received in previous years, while many are forced to accept cuts. Often, the space program is the first place politicians look to make those cuts.
The reasoning for cutting the space program is simple: The public doesn’t understand what it does. In the realm of expensive government projects, the dollar figures of space probes, satellites, and landers appear exorbitant to the sensibilities of the average U.S. citizen who assumes that a government which spends $2.5 billion on the Curiosity rover on Mars and $3.26 billion on the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn is dedicating a large portion of the government budget to space exploration with a 1997 Smithsonian poll finding that Americans on average believed NASA made up around 20% of the federal budget. These feelings are often summed up in the sentiment held by many that “we should solve all of the problems here on Earth before we worry about what’s out in space.”
While NASA’s 2012 budget of $17.77 billion was no small drop in the bucket, it comprised only 0.48% of the total federal budget. 2013 saw cuts enacted that brought funding back to an estimated $16.87 billion, and the FY 2014 budget request for NASA holds steady with the 2012 figure by asking for $17.72 billion. In comparison to the height of the space race where NASA’s budget made composed 4.41% of the national budget in 1966, all of the recent figures are a far cry from NASA’s heyday.
“So what?” some people will ask, still hesitant to spend billions of dollars on space exploration. It is only when you look at the benefits to humanity from space exploration that one realizes the importance of space exploration and scientific advancement. When scientists set out to solve a problem such as taking a human to walk on the moon and bringing them back in one piece, they never know what they are getting into until they are in the thick of it. The solutions they come up with often have an immediate application, but sometimes it takes time for someone to realize its commercial application. Things such as freeze-dried food, LEDs, scratch-resistant lenses, water purification, solar power cells, as well as heat shielding, fire-fighting technology, and a host of others can all be traced back to things developed at NASA.
That said, the budget of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission shows that with technological improvements and engineering ingenuity, more can be done with less. While NASA’s Maven mission to put a spacecraft in orbit of Mars cost $671 million, its Indian counterpart achieved the same results for a mere $74 million. Budget cuts and the cancellation of key programs such as the space shuttle program have forced NASA to use funding more selectively on the most high-value projects, but have also paved the way for greater space exploration funding in the future.
I was fortunate enough to be in the Los Angeles area in 2012 to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final flight aboard a Boeing 747 before being delivered to retirement at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. At the time, no one was sure what the future would hold for the U.S. space program as our astronauts no longer had a way to visit the International Space Station and no other projects had reached a point where their selection was likely. The Sept. 17 selection of Boeing and SpaceX to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station is a huge milestone for the U.S. space program as it takes the responsibility of transporting crew and cargo off of NASA, which will be able to reinvest that in new projects and ideas. Those companies and others such as Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences Corp, and Virgin Galactic will surely continue to increase their own research and development, allowing the market to reduce the costs of space flight and space exploration Commercial spaceflight may very well be the ace in the hole for the U.S. in developing the technologies that change the world of tomorrow into a more prosperous, successful, and healthy one. As our telescopes and probes already exploring the solar system continue making new discoveries however, the factor to keep in mind is that no matter what happens, we need to keep reaching for the stars to see what we might find.