Recently an article in Business Insider ventured a thought experiment. What if #NASA had a budget of $600 billion a year, comparable to that of the #United States military? What could the space agency accomplish? The piece did not give a coherent answer, but the question does raise another, more serious one. What should be the annual level of NASA spending?

The history of NASA spending

NASA’s budget peaked in FY1966 when reached a level of $43 billion a year in modern dollars. The level was achieved during the height of the Apollo race to the moon when the space agency was building up infrastructure, learning the art of space travel, developing the technology to go to the lunar surface, and conducting planetary missions such as the Mariner flyby of Mars on the side.

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To compare how far NASA’s fortunes have fallen, it should be noted that the FY2018 budget request by the Trump administration is $19.1 billion, though the House is disposed to be more generous with $19.9 billion for the next fiscal year. Out of that money, the Space Agency is expected to conduct a number of science and technology programs, is operating the International Space Station, as well as mounting the Journey to Mars, which now includes the moon again as Vice President Pence recently announced.

What would be the appropriate level of NASA spending?

The $600 billion proposal is silly and would never be thought of unless a massive asteroid was detected heading toward Earth or an alien invasion was headed that way. Besides, the idea of setting an arbitrary budget figure and then finding out ways to spend it gets things exactly backward.

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One should ascertain what one wants to do, determine how much it will cost, and then set up a reasonable plan for implementation. Only then can one figure out what the space agency should be spending.

Also, NASA has access to resources it did not have in the 1960s. It has forged international partnerships, particularly when the space station is concerned. The space agency is also doing joint projects with the private sector, outsourcing Earth to low Earth orbit transportation of astronauts and cargo to companies like SpaceX and Boeing. The United States needs to continue such partnerships, not only as cost sharing measures but to encourage close relations with allies and to foster the growth of an independent commercial space sector.

NASA could be doing a lot more than it is currently tasked with. More planetary missions that can be funded are proposed, but only a few are approved. A lot more could be done to develop space-related technology, such as advanced propulsion systems. And the space agency’s deep space exploration program could stand to go at a higher pace, say the moon in four years and Mars in eight or ten.

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Given that wish list and the realities of international and commercial cooperation, how much should NASA spend? Would it be the Apollo-era peak of $43 billion a year? Something less. A thorough analysis of what an optimal #space program might cost would yield surprising results.