Figure: The percentage of the federal budget for NASA and space research has not kept pace with our dreams, or with the pace of scientific discovery since the Apollo Years. Entire generations weaned on 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars' demand more from NASA than what we are financially willing to commit to this great adventure. Because NASA must obey the laws of nature, and most of these laws require expensive solutions, NASA cannot continue this decline without great human and technological risk. (Credit: The Author).
The recent budgets are at a level of about $15 billion and amount to one percent of our total federal budget. In the 1960's this fraction was closer to 5%. Since the 1980's it has been slowly declining until by 2003 it is just under 0.7%. We spend as much on NASA as we do buying potted plants and gardening materials every year. You can hardly argue that we, as a Nation, have a very serious attitude towards space. About 10 percent of the NASA budget goes to aviation. The remainder goes to space research both manned and unmanned. Since the beginning of NASA back in 1959, a total of $466 billion has been spent by NASA over 44 years when correction to '2003 dollars' is made to take into account inflation.
It's interesting to note that $466 billion about equal to a single-years expenditure by the Department of Defense. It is well known that NASA is horribly under-funded compared to the objectives and missions it is asked to carry out. If the budget were doubled you would see many more very ambitious engineering and scientific projects to detect life and planets orbiting other stars. There would be a full-fledged lunar research outpost with some very impressive telescopes in operation. During the last 20 years we have spent endless time 'debating' why we need a Space Station, why we 'really' need to go to the Moon and Mars etc. While the debating goes on, and budgets are reduced, we loose precious opportunities to carry out these projects at lower cost than what we now have to pay. When the USSR was still our enemy, the debate was about political prowess and national security. But today, it is infinitely harder to convince anyone to do anything that costs money other than prepare for war or national defense.
It will take a national calamity such as a direct asteroid impact on a major city to change this around. The second problem is that our basic understanding of how to carry out large projects is still rudimentary. We do not know how to put someone in space for more than 200 days without serious medical impacts. We do not know how to build a closed biological system for long-term habitation. Our technologies for putting material in orbit still cost thousands of dollars a pound. Even if we had more money, it is not obvious how to accelerate the learning process, but it would sure help to have more resources and people involved. But we cannot seem to convince anyone that without reliable support and investment, we will never be able to solve these big problems that still daunt us. No matter how clever we think we are as designers, Nature can not be short-changed and still allow us to operate safely in space.
This answer was updated in 2011.
See my books:
The Astronomy Cafe (1998) and
Back to the Astronomy Cafe (2003) for more FAQs in printed form. Author: Dr. Sten Odenwald, Copyright 2011
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