Recently we’ve been able to witness a couple of amazing, truly awe-inspring things: going to the edge of what is physically possible in order to smash world sports records and landing the Mars Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars to further our understanding of the universe.
And here’s something else rather amazing: for about the cost of two weeks of the Olympic Games we could have sent over another five rovers to Mars. In fact, the amount of money needed to fund the Olympic Games could fund NASA for nearly an entire year.
Similarly tiny by comparison, the US government spends a mere $17.7 billion on NASA and spends more than 36 times that on defense—$647 billion, with nearly $20 billion alone in 2011 spent on air conditioning tents. Since NASA’s Cold War glory days, the budget has gone from 4.41% of the total budget in 1966, to less than 0.45% today, its lowest ever. NASA helped to usher in a promising new future in the 1960s and it was rewarded with a rapidly-eroding budget.
INFOGRAPHIC: NASA Budget Timeline
It’s not an oversight; it was bound to happen in the absence of wealthy, politically-connected space science advocates to twist politicians’ arms. And in spite of the tiny fraction of money spent on NASA’s program, there are still many people who say that NASA is a waste of money. Chris Berg, a research fellow with Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs said recently that in the face of a rising national debt, “parachuting cars onto distant planets is the ultimate discretionary spend.”
Sure, I suppose that would be true, except for the fact that scientists aren’t actually parachuting cars onto distant planets so much as pushing the limits of human knowledge and conducting insanely valuable research that will make our lives unimaginably better in untold ways. Meanwhile, Americans are forking over $25 billion or more per year to chase down the kid who smokes weed in his mom’s basement. Hooray for priorities on that “discretionary spending.”
If anything, America needs to spend more on NASA. The US needs to invest in science and technology if we hope to remain competitive in the world. Here’s why:
- Technology development — The technology developed in space laboratories lead to innovation and growth in both the public and private sector in industries across the board from aviation to zoology. Spinoff, a NASA publication, features products whose development can be linked to NASA. I’m sure there’s nothing we really need as much as tent A/C among the following:
- Medical ultrasounds, enriched baby food and artificial limbs
- LED lights and temper(-pedic) foam
- Aircraft anti-icing systems and improved radial tires
- Freeze drying, water purification and solar energy
- Training scientists — Now, more than ever, America is losing its competitive edge in science and technology to other countries. NASA is the preeminent organization for encouraging discovery and fostering intellectual curiosity. Funding NASA and creating opportunities for scientists allows us to innovate more quickly and lead the world by creating opportunities for Americans in cutting-edge fields. And if we know anything, it’s that NASA scientists are sexy.
- Defense — It may not be the Cold War, but it is important to understand space as a frontier for defense. As more countries develop space programs and equip themselves with larger weapons, it will become increasingly important that America innovates in its use of space for defense, from communications to aeronautics. Also, if an asteroid ever gets a little close for comfort, we probably ought to have a plan or this could happen. Or this. OR THIS.
- Resources discovery — If there’s anything that Americans are good at it’s 1849-style prospecting: find resources and exploit them. Also, since we’re irresponsible gluttons, we’re rapidly running out of the stuff we need here on Earth to survive. Fortunately, the universe is a vast treasure trove of valuables and we just need to find them. Remember ALF’s home planet, Melmac, coveted lint, gravel and foam, but had gold and platinum toilets? And hey, at least we’re not destroying Earth if we’re plundering other planets, right?
- The “big questions” — Are we alone or is there other intelligent life in the universe? Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? Who shot JR? We’ll never know until we go forth into the dark, vast, final frontier we know as space.
Perhaps Bill Nye said it best:
“When you cut NASA’s budget in this way, you’re losing sight of why we explore space in the first place…There is no other country or agency that can do what NASA does — fly extraordinary flagship missions in deep space and land spacecraft on Mars. If [NASA budget cuts are] allowed to stand, the United States will walk away from decades of greatness in space science and exploration. But it will lose more than that. The U.S. will lose expertise, capability, and talent. The nation will lose the ability to compete in one of the few areas in which it is still the undisputed number one.”