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John Lewis

October 03, 2014 by

The Politics of Funding Space Exploration

In a speech in 2004 given in response to calls for direction in the space program, former President George Bush claimed that “This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart.” For many, there is lots of truth in this statement as the exploration of space seems to provide us with a way to contextualize our existence as humans, and because it allows us to probe at questions that border on metaphysics.

However, when a program depends on the federal government for funding, it is not enough, unfortunately, that a program may seem to be in our natural human interest or of any kind of moral imperative. For politicians who are asked to evaluate both practical and lofty matters with equal regard, it is very important that these kinds of programs also offer politicians some realizable goals with direct human and economic benefits for the American people.

This leaves scientists and engineers with an especially difficult job – beyond the intensive research and development already involved in a project, they must then publicly justify their projects just to keep them alive.

 

The Factors in Keeping the Space Program Alive

When the country faces economic trouble, the space program tends to be one of the first to suffer. As Roger D. Launius notes, “The American public is notorious for its willingness to support programs in principle but to oppose their funding at levels appropriate to sustain them.” The reasons for this are myriad.

 

Misconceptions on the True Cost of Space Travel

In several surveys taken over the last two decades, researchers have demonstrated that the public does not have a good conception of the actual monetary cost of the spaceflight program. As recently as 2007, respondents believed that NASA’s budget was about 20-25% of the federal budget, which amounts to about $2.7 trillion. In reality, the budget for NASA has never exceeded 4% (during the Kennedy administration). Today, the budget is closer to about 0.5%, around $16.2 billion per year.

Pop science icon Neil Degrasse Tyson has theorized that if more people were made aware of the actual budget of NASA, that they would probably be more inclined to favor increased financial support, and based on experiments generated so far, the evidence seems to support his claim. Scientists at the University of Houston found that when respondents were corrected in their ideas about NASA’s budget, that there was “a 29 percent mean increase for support for additional NASA spending.”

 

Perceptions of the Relative Importance of Space Travel

As a nation, we are pretty constantly faced with some very difficult political decisions. The degrees to which we choose to intervene in international affairs and the degrees to which we choose to respond to unrest at home generate moral unease and force us to question the relative monetary value of our programs. For those Americans who face very real daily struggles to find work, shelter, food, and education, it may seem that if we are failing to address our immediate instance of need here at home, that we have no business investing in programs that offer no direct, immediate address for our very real problems.

In the past, politicians have generated support for these kinds of programs by framing space exploration as a means to revitalize the economy, create jobs, provide us with critical information about the health and safety of our planet, and protect our place as a country at the forefront of scientific exploration and discovery. If there are not politicians advocating for the practical benefits of space travel, there will be little opportunity for public response.

 

The Need for Advocacy and Lobbying

In order for any particular project at NASA to get funded, it must be properly and vigorously represented to politicians by scientists and lobbyists. In his doctoral thesis at MIT, David André Broniatowski lists this as one of the first factors in the long-term political sustainability of a space program. Further, lobbyists must be able to present a realistic picture of the total cost of a program to politicians as surprise costs can be a major factor in the eventual cancelation of a program. Broniatowski places this burden on NASA, claiming that “a system that is designed without explicit consideration of political concerns faces design irrelevance.” However, it can often be difficult for scientists to create full and comprehensive budgets for a project at their outset.

 

A “Perfect Storm” of Factors

In his popular study on the role of public opinion in the life of the space travel program, Roger Launius remarks on the perception by many that politicians since Kennedy have not been as aggressive and driven in maintaining the space program. He notes that, while the perseverance of politicians is one factor, that really “in the end a unique confluence of foreign policy crisis, political necessity, personal commitment and activism, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the 1961 decision to carry out a forward-looking lunar landing program.”

And while we may be able to meet many of these factors, we are also faced with the fact that today, the goals of our space program have become much more complicated and technically difficult. For example, in Space.com‘s listing of NASA’s 2014 goals, continued work on travel to Mars and the development of commercial space flight are included. Each of these programs may seem like something out of science fiction, and for good reason: the scientific and technological demands of each are huge, which means that getting all of these factors to align perfectly becomes even harder.