Early in his campaign, Barack Obama introduced a plan to fund education by partly delaying funds for Constellation, NASA’s shuttle replacement program. He justified the plan by saying that the U.S. won’t have engineers and scientists “if we don’t have kids who are able to read, write and compute.” Due to the current financial crisis, budget cuts in many governmental sectors are inevitable. But the fact that politicians are quick to call out NASA as a waste of federal funds is sad because NASA isn’t just about science fiction or pointless exploration. NASA is about investment in new technology. It’s a surprisingly efficient means of jump-starting tech-driven industry and making useful discoveries, something that most people just don’t realize.
What has a lot of scientists and engineers scratching their heads is that Obama later seemed to counter his own education funding plan. He directly contradicted his earlier statements when addressing crowds in Florida and Texas, where NASA creates thousands of jobs for engineers, technicians, and service workers. Obama talked about how the space program needs funding. In order to implement the Constellation program, which is meant to carry astronauts into space starting in the next seven years. While it may have been political pandering, it now appears NASA will continue to receive a high level of funding.
The arguments against NASA often come from the idea that the space program is a gigantic waste of money, which isn’t true at all. Strictly looking at the cost side, it’s actually just a drop in the bucket of the U.S. budget. Its $17.6 billion budget is less than one percent of the overall budget, and has never exceeded four percent, even at the height of the space race. Yet, in polling, the average American believes a quarter of all taxes go to NASA programs.
But no matter the cost, NASA’s projects are worth it. For every dollar put into NASA, the technology has developed returns several times over in new products in fields ranging from medicine to sportswear. And the average American gets to enjoy the benefits. The sensor systems developed for the over-budget Hubble Space Telescope are what allow you to document your night on the town with your digital camera. The expensive corrections made to the Hubble when it was found to be flawed turned out to be a boon for medical imaging systems, giving doctors the ability to detect cancers extremely early and saving countless lives a year.
Of course, there are two big questions that always end up being asked: why not directly invest in medicine, and why not let the private sector handle space flight? The truth is that investing in one specific science doesn’t always give you the right answers. We fund medicine, we fund other fields, but it’s in the cross-section of these innovations that the most creative solutions to our problems are found. Diversity of thought and experience generates more overall knowledge and valuable lessons are learned even when the projects fail.
Private industry can’t be counted on to invest in things that won’t turn an immediate profit. While companies like SpaceX that make space flight a private business venture are great for the field, raising capital for an industry with as much risk as space flight is difficult at best. Some investors in private space flight, such as Paul Allen, are only doing so because of their personal love of the field. NASA and other programs like it worldwide need funding to cover the hard science from which only governments can realize a tangible benefit.
It’s partly true that NASA has some issues, with the Space Shuttle being a prime example. It was meant to be reusable, cheaper and safer than traditional rockets, but repeated use has proven it’s anything but that. Both government and public support keeps the program going while replacements such as the VentureStar program were canned for being a waste of resources.
Our space program’s problems stem from equal parts funding and oversight. Instead of lavishing funds on high-profile projects and cutting corners on smaller ones that only seem to make headlines if they fail, NASA needs better review of projects and proper funding to make sure projects get it right the first time as much as possible. Smarter leadership has led to the decision to make the Constellation program one based on reliable, proven technologies that save lives and money. With better accountability and a focused vision for realistic goals, NASA funding will remain a wise investment for the Obama administration.
Ben Caleca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.