Neil deGrasee Tyson on Dreaming and NASA’s Budget


I’ve already mentioned the sequestration issue before, and in that I had a bit of fun with the mistaken Sci-Fi reference by the POTUS. But in that sequestration, NASA took a cut in its funding. Nature had already reported on this back in September of last year, and those cuts were significant: $417 million from its science budget, $346 from space operations, $309 from exploration, and $246 from cross-agency support, among other cuts.

How big is NASA’s budget? Last year it was a bit less than $18 billion, which is less than half a percent of the US Federal budget. You have to go back to 1993 for when the budget was a single percentage point of the Fed, and that seems to be a spike after the Challenger disaster. Between 1975 and 1990, it was less than a percent. It peeked in 1966 at 4.41% of the US Federal budget, and that was when humans were trying to go to the Moon.

What was the cost of the Apollo missions that finally got people to the Moon? That seems to be estimated (in modern dollars) to around $140 billion. While that seems like a lot, that was spread out over years and succeeded in getting several teams onto the surface of another celestial body. As for the 2008/2009 Wall Street bailouts, that was about $880 billion dollars, an amount that covers the costs of NASA’s history.

With the current cuts, there is a bit chunk taken out of NASA’s budget which is already at an all-time low since 1960.

So perhaps it’s no wonder Neil deGrasse Tyson is angry when not only we don’t increase the budget of NASA, but we cut it and say we can’t afford it.

It seems almost too obvious that actual missions to new horizons will push people to dream. But I don’t think Tyson is completely right in his arguments. There was the wish to travel to the Moon and beyond before the space program, but we can argue that NASA showed that those dreams could be realized. There has to already be something in the Zeitgeist to make us want to go forward, but it is those explorers and leaders that make the dreams palpable, tangible, and valuable.

But for those that want to look at the numbers, there is good evidence that NASA spending is a big help. A Nature study from 1992 showed that spending had significant benefit to the economy, with an average multiplier of 2.1 (and a multiplier of 5.9 for electronics). Other industries such as cars and petroleum were less than the NASA average. And this makes sense since each innovation is something out of the normal sphere of use, and that uniqueness means it have invested into something new and potentially profitable when it can be spun-off from its original, space-based use.

This study also is incomplete. It doesn’t consider, for example, the education aspect of NASA, which is an investment in future generations. It means NASA is helping create another generation of scientists and engineers, something we need if we want to continue to have technological innovations, not to mention trips to outer space.

And let’s not forget it is NASA that proves new insights into the biggest thing in the universe: the Universe! The federal space program is not only sending robots to planets, it is funding (among other things) telescopes in orbit, including the successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope. Losing funding, delaying, or canceling programs such as this would be devastating to astronomy, and these sorts of cuts have already hurt the exploration of the unknown.

A few years ago, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) was effectively cancelled when NASA had to pull out due to budget constraints, the European Space Agency (ESA) wasn’t going to continue it without help with the costs. This mission would not only potentially prove the final prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (gravitational waves), but by those waves it could peer beyond the time of the recombination that produced the Cosmic Microwave Background about 380,000 years ago. This is an effective wall to looking further back in time using light, cutting us off from the most important periods of the creation and development of the universe. Potentially with LISA, we could see events from the earliest moments of the universe and potentially test advanced physics theories and understand how the universe came into existence. But now this is on indefinite hold. We could be building the machine that tells us about where we ultimately came from, but instead we have to continue tax breaks for oil companies (saving $40 billion in the last decade) and other wasteful things. (Oh, and there was a study showing that taxing churches as normal properties would bring in $71 billion a year; that’s a fix to the much of the sequestration cuts right there.)

Yeah, so Neil Tyson has every reason to be angry. We could be figuring out so much about the universe, and yet we cut down our investments and dreams for the future. One can only hope that things get better (and there are at least some efforts to protect NASA a little bit). Well, you could be more proactive and call/write your representative and senator. Tell the President. And tell your friends that the money we are spending on understanding our place in the universe is rather paltry all things considered. Let people know about Penny4NASA. Let’s get come change for NASA.

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