Everyone Loves NASA But No One Wants to Give It Money

The success of <i>The Martian</i> has increased public interest in NASA's mission to Mars, but so far it hasn't increased the amount of money Congress is giving NASA.

Oct 14 2015, 8:27pm

All photos courtesy of NASA

Last week in the Washington Post, Joel Achenbach predicted that NASA will never put an astronaut on Mars. The agency simply does not have the budget for it, he argued, and it's unlikely the U.S. government will ever cough up the additional cash that will be required for such an elaborate mission. Astronomer and Slate writer Phil Plait agreed, and wondered whether NASA's massive, ongoing PR campaign—which recently included collaborating with Ridley Scott on his $113 million-domestic-grossing The Martian—"will backfire" because, thanks to Congress's major budget-shorting over the past few years, it can't make good on its promises to the public.

Congress says it can't fund NASA if the agency doesn't provide concrete dates and budgets for its Mars missions. Meanwhile, NASA has shared detailed plans for their Mars endeavors, but can't provide those price tags or dates without knowing how much they'll for sure be able to get. NASA and Congress's mutual reticence is understandable: as a recent New York Times op-ed pointed out, even a tiny shortage from Congress and the White House can severely cripple and sometimes even sink a project, dumping millions of taxpayer dollars down the drain in the process. Given that reality, reports that missions like the (theoretically) extremely promising Commercial Crew program have now been set back by as much as a billion dollars doesn't bode well for a manned Mars mission happening any time soon.

Even so, Congress's stubbornness with the NASA budget would baffle anybody who got within five miles of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena this past weekend. Originally founded in the mid-1930s after a handful of pyromaniacal Caltech students whose penchant for rocket-building attracted the interest and approval of the United States Army, the relatively small research outpost now hosts an annual open house, the aim of which is, of course, to invite the local community behind the curtain to learn about and engage with NASA's many current and future missions and projects.

While it's a fairly popular event in any given year, the turnout for this year's event—thanks in no small part to its role in The Martian—was, in a word, incredible. On Saturday, the campus, which can only host about 21,000 people, reached capacity and had to close its gates within the first three hours; on Sunday they hit the same limit in an hour and a half, while parking filled entirely by the time doors opened at 9 a.m. Hundreds of people, many with small children, walked and waited in line for hours in the blazing, 95-degree sun for a chance to get in; and hundreds, as JPL's Twitter account hilariously documented, were turned away before they even got close. Once the lucky ones got inside, they were met with even more lines, to 21 different attractions around the campus, most of which involved several more hours waiting in temperatures that neared 100 degrees fahrenheit .

As a native southern Californian, I've been to Disneyland more times than I can count. Still, I've never experienced a crowd—or wait times, including a two-plus-hour line for parking—like the one that engulfed JPL this past weekend. (Employees, I found later, attested to exactly this.) In total, a spokesman estimated the weekend attendance at around 45,000.

The most massive lines were those to look in on places like JPL's own Mission Control bay and the Microdevices lab, where engineers develop sensing devices in futuristic-looking clean rooms, as well as quick video screenings, like a clip called "Crazy Engineering," which highlighted some of the flashier, more science-fiction-y technologies being developed at the lab. "Crazy Engineering" was a 20-minute video; by 11 a.m., the estimated wait time, according to the app JPL developed specifically for the event (just like a music festival!), was nearly three hours.

If nothing else, this is proof that people like NASA, and they think going to Mars seems like a pretty cool idea. Experts agree, too. Astropunk Neil DeGrasse Tyson submitted testimony to the Senate urging increased spending on NASA, specifically for missions to Mars. "Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth," he wrote, "because doing what's never been done before is intellectually seductive (whether deemed practical or not), and innovation follows, just as day follows night." Astrocapitalist Elon Musk, meanwhile, has argued that if we increased NASA's budget to one percent of our federal budget, "we buy life insurance." (Which is to say, Musk thinks that we should colonize Mars so we have somewhere to go in case a giant asteroid hits the Earth.) Hell, when Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was asked by US News what he'd do as president, he said, "I would get the NASA program off the ground because enormous numbers of inventions came out of NASA, things that we use every day. And you know we need to bring the innovative spirit back to America." When your cause has support from nerds on the left, right, and center of the political spectrum, that indicates that it's probably a pretty important one.

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The budget insufficiency, however, is less well-known. Studies have shown that the average American believes we give vastly more of the federal budget to NASA than we actually do. In 1997, one such study found people believed it commanded as much as 20% of it.

Yet for the past decade, NASA has received no more than 0.63% of the annual federal budget. Last year it received just 0.5%, which came to $17.6 billion. A mere 0.27% of personal income taxes goes to NASA, meaning most Americans pay about 10 tax dollars per year for the program, or less than one cent per tax dollar. (By contrast, we paid 27 cents per tax dollar to the military.)

Logically, there shouldn't be such a perpetual struggle to fund our space program—as evidenced by the turnout at the JPL, NASA wants to tell people about what they're doing, and people want to listen. There's an argument that sustained public interest in NASA's day-to-day activities should add up to increased budgets. And yet that's not quite always the case—when asked by VICE if the JPL Open House's popularity would contribute to an increased budget for the agency, a NASA rep responded, "I would say probably not."

This year, NASA and President Obama have requested $18.5 billion from Congress for the 2016 fiscal year. (Though the 2016 fiscal year technically began on October 1, Congress voted to extend 2015's budget until December so they could iron out the particulars of the 2016 budget.) If passed, NASA's budget will see a $500 million increase from its 2015 allotment—however, it's still only about half a percent of Obama's proposed $3.5 trillion budget.

It hasn't always been this way, though. The biggest sum Congress has ever awarded the agency came during the Apollo 11 era; in the years leading up to the moon landing, the government dedicated huge percentages of the federal budget to the space program, topping out at 4.41 percent of the Federal Budget in 1966. At an inflation-adjusted 43.5 billion, that's two and a half times the amount given to NASA in 2014. That was at the height of the Cold War, when America's achievements in outer spaced were viewed as an expression of our ideological supremacy over the U.S.S.R.

These days, we're actually working with Russia to explore our solar system rather than competing with them. Maybe the spirit of cooperation will motivate humanity to get our asses to Mars, because god knows this chicken-and-egg clusterfuck NASA and Congress have created won't.

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