Since its inception in 1958, NASA has accomplished some pretty spectacular feats of science. Our country has landed humans on the Moon six times. We've successfully put laboratories onto the surface of Mars, and we've flown by every single planet in our solar system, including the recently promoted asteroid-turned-dwarf planet, Ceres.
Despite decades of scientific and technological achievements, some people still think that funding NASA is a waste of money. However, when you do the calculations, it turns out we are actually getting a great value from this government-run agency.
What NASA Gives Us
We can thank the Cold War for NASA's existence in the first place. After the launch of Sputnik in 1957, President Eisenhower realized we were losing the space race. So, on July 29th, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was born. Upon signing the Space Act, Eisenhower said this about the new program: “There are many aspects of space and space technology which can be helpful to all people as the United States proceeds with its peaceful program of space and exploration. Every person has the opportunity to share through understanding in the adventures which lie ahead.”
For 57 years NASA has provided the world with new perspectives on our species and our place in the cosmos. After the Apollo 8 mission sent back the famous “Earthrise” image, we were able to see ourselves for the first time. There we were, a beautiful blue ball, where everyone lives. Then on Valentine's day in 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned around on its way out of our solar system, and took the ultimate family portrait. This time, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles away, we were tiny, just a speck among the stars. It was because of moments like these that for decades when children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, they answered, “an astronaut!” This dream only existed because of NASA.
Recently, the world was united once again in the spirit of space exploration as the New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto. Always the underdog of the solar system, and discovered only in 1930, we never really knew what Pluto looked like; it is 3 billion miles away, after all. On July 14th it seemed as though the world stopped; people tweeted, Facebooked, and cheered on the streets while humankind accomplished something great. And while no one could see the spacecraft, we all watched in awe as the nine-year journey came to a close and we flew past Pluto, only to find out it was more interesting than anyone could have ever imagined.
The Price Of Awe And Amazement
Getting inspired by science and discovery is one of the most rewarding parts of being a human. But exploring isn't free, especially not in the space case. What is the price of awe and amazement?
Since the end of the Apollo program in 1972 NASA has operated with an average 0.5 percent of the total US budget. That's not even a percent of the total 3 trillion dollars allocated to the U.S. in 2014. Although that may still seem like a lot of money, let's compare it to the beginning of the Apollo program.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy decided that NASA would send humans to the Moon before the end of the decade. At that time, each U.S. citizen was paying $20 per year to NASA. JFK needed that number to go up to $26 a year to help get our astronauts to the Moon. In 2015 dollars, the Apollo era budget would have been equivalent to each American paying over $200 a year to the space administration. If NASA still had that sort of funding in 2015, that would make its budget a whopping $65 billion dollars per year, compared to its actual budget of $17.5 billion. Instead, in 2014 each American paid an average of $54 per year to NASA.
That money gets spread out over many different projects. So even though the Curiosity rover had an astounding $2.6 billion price tag, each citizen only paid about about $0.41 per year to put the SUV-sized robot on Mars.
Since 1972, NASA's budget hasn't increased, but has been cut by roughly 75 percent, and it's stayed that way for 42 years. While the Apollo era budget was arguably not sustainable, it raises questions as to what might be possible if NASA once again had access to more financial support.
NASA has made a little bit of money go a long way. In addition to organizing science missions, the space agency employs over 60,000 people including private organizations. But NASA can't do it all. Budget cuts are delaying the development of the Commercial Crew program, which would get astronauts launching from American soil again. In the meantime, we'll be forced to continue buying tickets on the Russian Soyuz.
What Lies Ahead
Despite its ongoing budgetary battles, NASA continues to do good science.
Next on the horizon for NASA's space exploration agenda is a flyby of Europa. The mission to Jupiter's icy moon has created a lot of excitement for astrobiologists. Because Europa has more water in its oceans than all of the water combined on Earth, it has the potential to harbor life.
The quest to land humans on Mars in the 2030's is also something scientists at NASA are trying to plan for.
It's widely accepted that there won't be another “Apollo moment” for our space program. NASA will probably never receive the amount of funding it did when JFK set his sights on the Moon. There also probably won't be another Cold War, but there will always be this question: What else is out there?
We've barely scratched the surface of the solar system--there are so many more questions, and many more questions we don't even know we have. The price of understanding is small, and for people around the globe to feel connected over a rocket launch, a rover landing, a photo, or a spacewalk is priceless. Let's not stop. Let's keep pushing forward and as NASA says, let's continue to “dare mighty things.”