As we get ready for the final space shuttle flight on July 8, let’s look at the current state of the space program in the United States.
First of all, the space program has done some incredible things for the human race. The Hubble Space Telescope has reached out farther into the heavens than any visible light picture has ever done in the past. Looking at the first galaxies to ever form in our universe. Also, the International Space Station has shown that humans can survive for extended periods of time in microgravity and has allowed for further studies into the effects of prolonged weightlessness. Most importantly, it has shown that many nations around the world are capable of collaborating in order to achieve a common goal. Mars rovers are driving around on the surface of another planet as you read this. The rover Opportunity has been successfully carrying out its mission 30 times longer than originally intended and it is still kicking. Go get those rocks buddy!
Despite all of these great accomplishments, NASA and the space program are in trouble. The space shuttle is being retired after its final launch in July and there is no replacement on the horizon. Instead, NASA is going to pay for seats aboard Russian space vehicles in order to get crew and gear to and from the space station. The reason there is no successor to the space shuttle is because there has been no money to build the space shuttle. If we look at the budget of NASA (in 2008), we see that it has an operating budget of $17.3 billion. This sounds like a lot of money, but remember that we are dealing with the United States Government. This total only makes up 0.6% of the total budget for the country. Now, let’s compare that to something else for reference. Each year, congressmen in the US put thousands of earmarks into bills, costing billions to the taxpayer. Estimates for the cost of these earmarks is around 1-2% of the total budget. That is 2-3 times the annual budget of NASA!
Imagine what could be done with a budget bump like that. There could be 2-3 times as many missions. Or, there could be two or three major new initiatives. For example, there could be a big project to replace the space shuttle. There could be a project to establish a base on the moon or an asteroid. Or, most exciting of all, there could be a project to establish a permanent base on Mars! Imagine being alive in the time when the human race became a multi-planet species.
In the past NASA has had problems with sticking to budgets, or missions failing, but in the end NASA should be evaluated based on its accomplishments and its ability to inspire us to new plateaus of achievement. It is especially important to keep in mind how few resources we have given NASA when certain presidential candidates say that “NASA is standing in the way” of a better future. In response, I want to point out that the last time NASA had at least two percent of the national budget, the moon landing was the result. So why not give NASA a real fighting chance to do science, give them a budget that can be used to fund bold and adventurous missions. This will enable them to inspire a whole new generation to possibly go to another world.