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The Space Race: Is Funding for NASA Still Relevant?

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Published: Tue, 12 Sep 2017

Abstract

Since its inception in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), has spent a total $1.3 trillion dollars adjusted for inflation. This paper examines the debate between two opposing views on funding for NASA. The debate is broken down into two groups, pro-funding and anti-funding. The arguments between both sides, while very similar, are opposite in their views. The pro-funding side is in the opinion that, positive economic impact, international relations, and planning for the future call for increased funding. Those anti-funding argue that funding NASA impedes the economy, there is little to no return on investment, and that the United States should be focused on the present, rather than the future. This paper examines both sides of the argument, weighs each of the opinions, and examines how the relationship of this issue is pertains to the field of Public Administration. The author states his view and gives his recommendations on the issue.

Keywords: NASA, public funding, public administration, national debt

Ten years after the start of the Cold War, the U.S.SR launched the first artificial Earth Satellite into space. In response to tensions with the former Soviet Union, the United States’ National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, launched its first satellite into space, kick starting what is known as The Space Race. A few months later, NACA was dissolved and superseded into NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Since its founding in July of 1958, NASA has averaged roughly 0.9% (Rawden, 2017) of the annual United States Federal budget. However, since the 1990’s, that average has seen a significant decrease. In February of 2016, 58 years since NASA was founded, Congress surpassed NASA’s requested budget of $18.5 billion and approved $19.3 billion (A&G, 2016) to fund NASA. With the House and Senate both approving a Federal Budget of $3.9 trillion (Congressional Budget Office, 2017), NASA’s current budget only equates to 0.49% of the overall budget. However, with Congress surpassing the NASA’s requested budget, this marks the first time in five years they have seen a substantial budget increase. With budget forecasts by the Congressional Budget Office (2016) putting the nation at a debt of $20.1 trillion by 2018, this leaves public administrators to question whether this budget increase and NASA itself is worth the money.

As Public Administrators, we can see that the debate over the funding of NASA is broken down into two opposing viewpoints. Those in favor are compelled by several factors, such as, public admiration for NASA, strengthening international relations, and planning for the future. While those opposed argue that funding NASA impedes the economy, there is little to no return on investment, and that the United States should focus on the present, rather than the future. No matter what side you are on, we can see that the debate over the funding of NASA is important to the field of Public Administration. This paper examines both sides of the debate over the funding NASA and how public administrators can use this debate as a case study for future problems.

Viewpoint #1: Those in Favor

A 2015 PEW Research survey shows that 68% of Americans had a favorable view of NASA (Motel, 2015), with those of higher education having more favorability. The survey also cites a different PEW survey conducted in 2011 that found 58% of the public said it was essential that the U.S. continue to be a world leader in space exploration. These studies confirm that the public has great admiration toward NASA, but there is a need to justify the high price tag of space exploration. This justification can be argued with several factors: Inventions and Technology, International Relations, and Future Planning.

Inventions and Technology

After a Korean airliner accidentally strayed into Soviet airspace in 1983, and was subsequently shot down, then President Ronald Regan declassified the use of Global Positioning System (Brustein, 2014). This 20-year-old technology was developed during joint experiments between the Navy and NASA using NASA’s advancements in satellites and technology. GPS is today one of the most widely used inventions that NASA helped create. However, there are also a wide range of inventions and technology that funding of NASA’s research and development helped to create. In NASA’s magazine Spinoff (NASA, 2008), they credit themselves with several medical inventions, including artificial limbs improvements, thanks to innovations in robotics and shock-absorbing materials. When NASA needed a stronger material for their landing parachutes, Goodyear developed a new fibrous material that is five times stronger than steel. Goodyear then used this technology in their tires to create the longer-lasting tires we have today. NASA also created Solar Energy technology, which sparked the clean-energy movement. While it is hard to quantify NASA’s return on investment, the countless advances they have made on inventions and technology have helped shape our world and boost our economy.

International Relations

While NASA is the highest spending space agency in the world, there are many other countries that work with the United States to continue space exploration. While the U.S. was the only country to land on the moon, future explorations require international cooperation. In 2006 NASA and China reached an agreement promising that both countries would strengthen exchanges, enhance mutual trust, develop a lasting friendship, and promote cooperation in relevant fields (Foley, 2014). This policy is necessary to continue the economic prosperity and relationship between the two countries. NASA also collaborates with 15 other countries to maintain and expand the International Space Station. This partnership strengthens relationships and encourages trade agreements. In turn, the trade agreements help boost our economy and strengthen NASA’s case for a high return on investment.

Future Planning

Proponents of continuing to fund NASA usually break down Future Planning into two parts: Population Growth and Earth Security. The population is undoubtedly growing exponentially. The UN estimates the world population will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050 (UN, 2015). This growth raises the question of earth sustainability. The world will eventually run out of resources and room to house and feed its people. Many people believe that the solution is in space exploration. With NASA currently planning expeditions to Mars, a planet with possible habitation aspects, there is a strong belief that humans can become an interplanetary species. This belief is only possible if we continue funding NASA, and being the leader in space exploration. Earth Security is another part of NASA’s responsibilities. NASA not only monitors the weather, but asteroid and nautical sea patterns. Defunding our space program could potentially be disastrous if NASA could no longer take preventative steps to combat climate change.

View Point #2: Those Against

While there is no doubt there is a great love for NASA, defunding the space program would be beneficial for our economy. PEW Research conducted a study in 2014 finding that although a majority of people were in favor of space exploration, only 22% of people said that the U.S. spends too little on space exploration (Wormald, 2014).

This leaves opponents questioning as to why the U.S. spends billions of dollars each year to fund NASA. Those arguing for defunding the space program have three main reasons: NASA impedes the economy, there is little to no return on investment, and that the United States should focus on the present, rather than the future.

Impeding the Economy

With a forecasted debt of $20.1 trillion by 2018, many politicians are trying to find ways to reduce our spending. While only 0.5% of the national budget, $19.1 billion dollars is no small amount of money. Adjusted for inflation, NASA has accounted for $1.1 trillion in expenditures since its founding in 1958 (Rawden, 2017). Since the introduction of the new fleet of space shuttles in 1971, each launch carries a price tag of around $1.5 billion per flight. Companies such as SpaceX have been awarded contracts totaling $1.6 billion for 6 flights to the ISS. It is no wonder NASA has started to turn towards private companies to send supplies and expeditions into space, when private companies can accomplish the goals at a smaller price. In 2014, NASA announced that U.S. companies SpaceX and Boeing were awarded $6.4 billion for future space flights. All this money could have been allocated toward paying back debts and protecting the financial future of the United States.

Return on Investment

In the opposing view, I stated that it would be hard to quantify NASA’s Return on Investment. This lack of calculation gives cause to those opposed to funding the space program. While NASA is credited with countless inventions, but the price tag for inventing them is hard to justify. A 2011 PEW Research study shows that only 38% of people think the space program contributes to a lot to scientific advancements, and that 52% of people believe that human astronauts are non-essential to the program (Kennedy, 2015). These statistics can be viewed as a misallocation of NASA funding. If there has not been a significant invention since NASA published its 2008 list of technologies that benefit our lives and its last crowning achievement, sending Pathfinder to mars, costing $265 million, NASA has not truly justified its recent return on investment.

Prioritizing the Present

As NASA continues to look to the future, opponents say we should focus on the present. With a large National Debt, the United States needs to prioritizing its current finances so it can continue to have a future. While the earth is made up of a finite amount of resources, it is unlikely that they will run out before we can fix our economy. The sun is not estimated to begin to die for another 5 billion years (Scudder, 2015), and only 3% of the earth supports more than half of humanity (Nuwer, 2015). In other words, the world is not ending anytime in the foreseeable future, and we are not going to run out of room on earth. Instead of worrying about the future, the U.S. needs to prioritize on the present. NASA needs to look at all their assets, and begin to look at what it can liquidize. The space shuttle program alone is valued at nearly $200 billion (Hsu, 2011).  If the U.S. defunded NASA and worked toward privatizing the program and selling its assets, the U.S. could be beneficial toward reducing the U.S. debt. The Military and Department of Defense need to absorb most of NASA while privatizing and selling the rest. Afterwards, the U.S. needs to begin to cut the enormous Defense Budget, to make up most, if not all, of the deficit.  If the United States focuses on prioritizing the present, by takes steps to reduce its expenditures, such as reducing or eliminating NASA’s budget, we can begin to see a brighter, less constrictive future.

Assessing the Arguments

Both sides of the debate have similar yet conflicting arguments. The pro-funding NASA side argues that NASA boosts the economy by, facilitating inventions and new technology, strengthening international relations, and planning for the future. While those against argue that funding NASA impedes the economy, there is little to no return on investment, and that the United States should focus on the present, rather than the future. Whether NASA helps to boost or impedes the economy is the biggest aspect of the debate. While the space agency can never truly be recognized for their accomplishments, it is my belief that NASA has helped the economy in the past and is no longer the innovative and economically stimulating agency it once was. Public interest in NASA is starting to dwindle as much as their budget, and it is only time before private companies, such as SpaceX start to take over. There is also no doubt that NASA has strengthened our international relationships with other space-oriented nations. These relationships facilitate our trade agreements with one another, boosting our economy. If the U.S. were to defund NASA, it would make it hard to find a new avenue in which to continue those relationships. In the final argument, Future versus Present orientation, is the most heated side of the debate. At only 0.49% of the U.S. Budget, defunding NASA would hardly make a dent in the debt. However, the U.S. needs to start somewhere, as every little bit helps. If the U.S. were to privatize and sell NASA’s assets, it would be able to make a noticeable difference on tackling the debt.

Conclusion and Recommendation

As Public Administrators, we should be concerned at every aspect of our national budget. I believe we should either go all in and increase funding of NASA, or privatize and sell the assets.  Both sides of the debate have compelling sides. If we were to increase the budget, we would continue international cooperation and trade agreements, possibly continue to see new inventions and technologies, and facilitate American’s love of space travel. However, forced to choose a side, I believe we should take the opposite route. The national debt is wildly out of control and if we do not take steps to fix our mistakes, the world could see a disastrous economic depression. By selling off some of NASA’s assets to private companies and foreign countries, the U.S. would, in turn, can cash a sizable paycheck, and begin to pay off its debts. By privatizing NASA, the U.S. can also begin to turn the $19 billion funding toward the debt. If we do not begin to take action against our debt, the current and future generations may see a disastrous financial future.

The United States cannot continue down the current financial path it is taking, and defunding of NASA is a crucial step on the road to recovery. If the U.S. takes the route toward defunding NASA, that road can be used as a vital case study for Public Administrators. We will be faced at a time to do what is popular versus what is economically feasible. In times of economic hardship, the right path is not always the easiest.

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