The proposed 2013 NASA budget has just been released. A good summary document is here. The actual budget is down by about $59 million from what’s been laid out for 2012. Since the 2012 budget was already a $700 million decrease from 2011, which was in turn a few hundred million below 2010, the total NASA budget has decreased about one billion dollars in the last three years.
NASA’s budget is already tiny compared to other government programs; a drop from its high of $18.7 billion to less than $17.8 billion (a six percent decrease), has really hamstrung space science the last few years. Of course there is a recession right now, but pushing the agency that has always (at least since the 1960s) worked on a shoestring budget to do with even less is crazy. The actual savings are equivalent to about three hours of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
It’s become a cliché to compare the chronically underfunded NASA to the comically-bloated military establishment, but the comparison is instructive. In 2010, total military spending (not including indirect costs from interest on incurred debts) was 683.7 billion dollars. This was a three percent increase over the previous year.
Let me put it another way. At the same time the NASA budget was being nickle and dimed with budget decreases every year, the budget increase in the military for that year was about equal to the total NASA budget. The military budget increased by nearly $20 billion dollars the same year that NASA was cut back by a critical few hundred million.
This is not simply a shame for the curious among us, it’s bad fiscal planning. Some experts predict the accrued interest on the borrowed money for of the out-of-control military spending of the last decade (mostly due to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) will exceed the original spending before it is paid down. Anyone who has had trouble with credit card debts understands that when you borrow more than you can easily pay back, the interest can cause the debt to spiral out of control. Every dollar spent on the wars thus far, therefore, is actually at least two.
In contrast, past economic studies of NASA spending have determined a rate of return as low as seven or as high as 23 times the original investment as a result of technology advances. I.e., for every dollar you put in to NASA, you will eventually get back at least seven dollars due to economically valuable spin-off technologies. Whether these numbers will hold with future discoveries or not, it’s a near certainty that there will be a return of some kind. Basic research always pays off in the long run.
That means that gutting NASA’s budget by a billion dollars a year isn’t saving that amount of money. It’s actually throwing away several times as much. That billion dollars not being spent this year might mean $10 billion the economy could have gained a decade from now.
Phil Plait (“the Bad Astronomer”) has a more detailed analysis where he looks at the specific programs being cut (which include both education and Mars exploration, unfortunately). He also makes a great analogy. If you need to clear room on your hard drive, are you going to delete a bunch of tiny 100 kilobyte text files or are you gonna look at clearing an item or two from your big folder of multi-gigabyte movie files?
I might alter it slightly. If you have to remove programs to clear space on your hard drive, do you want to delete something small and incredibly useful like Notepad or can you do without some of your flash-based browser add-ons that take up 100 times the memory “budget” on your hard drive?
It’s time to loosen the purse strings for science again. There certainly are examples of inefficient, bloated government programs. But they don’t look anything like the folks at NASA, who stretch every dollar. We could be visiting distant planets, each one for the cost of a few hours of military spending. Why aren’t we?
Image credit: NASA