Life in a Vacuum – The Problem in NASA Funding

March 26, 2010

TED.com is a wonderful website that explores ideas.  In fact, their tagline is “Ideas worth sharing.”  They bring together an eclectic group of people to promote new ideas or simply how to see old ones in new ways.  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design but don’t let then name fool you, at its core TED is about people helping the world improve.  The organization has grown beyond its initial focus on the three groups of its name to include people from all walks of life with ideas they wish to share.  Simply put TED represents the best humanity has to offer.

During its evolution, TED developed something called TEDx events, with the “x’ meaning independently organized events.  For instance a group from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) formed TEDxNASA (click here to see the group).  It is great to see world-class scientists bring their particular area of interest into a format mere humans can understand.  In watching the various talks, we learn about current and projected programs underway at NASA.  After a talk, one cannot help but feel it is worthy of our support and funding.  Unfortunately, it is the funding that proves more problematic than support for the idea.

For example, in November of 2009, NASA scientist Joel Levine spoke of the need to return to Mars (Here is the link).  In this project, a group of over one hundred scientists and engineers are working on developing a craft, called ARES, to fly around Mars and collect all sorts of data.  In watching the presentation, as well as visiting the ARES website, amazement is assured and it becomes obvious that NASA still attracts the best and the brightest amongst us.  Even so, it is valid to question just why we want to do this and what is gained.  Rather than give that answer, as their website addresses the gains, the program’s cost becomes the issue.

Funding one program over another is painful.  Just as a mother cannot choose one child above another, NASA holds affection for each program it undertakes.  Still, no two children have exactly the same talents, and no two programs can produce the same results.  Just as one child might have to wait for its needs while another’s needs are tended, so must programs wait for funding.

The debate over NASA funding is especially heated during this time of economic hardship.  Detractors of the space program see it as money to be diverted, while supporters point to long-range returns on investment as proof funding is worthwhile.  In the end, funding is beyond the control of NASA.  It is in their best interest to deal with the reality of funding and set clear priorities.  In other words, they must pick which child (project) to support.  The leadership of NASA needs to give focus to the organization, focus that has lacked since the days of the Apollo program.

During the Apollo era (1963 – 1972), NASA had a lazar-beam like gaze on its goal – exploring the moon.   Even other major programs, Gemini for instance, added to the over all goals of the Apollo program.  That type of focus needs to return.

During the 1960s, NASA’s budget (click here for Historical table) fluxed between 1.2% and 4.3% with an average around 3% of the overall federal budget.  Currently, the NASA budget is approximately 0.6%.  Given the monetary increase of the overall budget, NASA taking a smaller percentage is not that troublesome.

Click Image for Larger View


As the graph illustrates, the money given to NASA has increased exponentially, still there is insight gained from some simple observations.  In the 1960s, NASA used roughly 3% of the federal budget and focused on reaching and exploring the moon.  They achieved that goal.  Now, NASA uses less than 1% of the federal budget and spreads it over more than 85 active programs dealing with many divergent areas, everything from studying polar clouds to deep space exploration and most everything in between.

Looking at any one program in a vacuum supports funding.  Again, they are all worthy, but as wonderful as they may be, the checkbook is not unlimited and NASA does not exist in a vacuum.  Supporters of NASA often point out nearly three times as much is spent in the United States on pets than the space program (the American Pet Products Association (APPA),  estimates $47.7 billion will be spent in the U.S. in 2010 on pets compared to NASA’s just over $17 billion).  The point being that NASA does not receive much support in the larger scope of things.

As true as that point may be, it is irrelevant.  NASA has just over $17 billion to spend. That’s it!  In the current climate they will not receive more.  The fact is they must fight to keep funding at its current level.  Faced with that reality, perhaps returning to goal oriented priorities, like in the Apollo days, is warranted.  If Mars exploration is the priority, focus funding on programs that support that goal.  Others will have to wait or modify their program to support the goal.

In the end, the leadership at NASA must make some hard choices.  Congress is not going to provide money to fund every project regardless of it worth.  By focusing on projects with common goals (i.e. exploring Mars), targeted funding will produce the best results.  Otherwise, all projects receive minimal funding and produce minimal results.



  1. One problem is the aerospace contractors who are consistently over budget and behind schedule. The NPOESS project was so poorly managed, it finally had to be cut back.

    • Yes, I am in total agreement with you on that point. The worst result is a project that is so poorly managed than nothing comes from it after a large investment. Still, that is a problem with accountability and that opens up a whole other can of worms.

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