In his Feb. 22 commentary [“NASA Needs a Destination,” page 19], Robert Zubrin stated that “In today’s dollars, NASA’s average budget from 1961 to 1973 was about $18 billion per year. That is about the same as NASA’s current budget.” He made a similar claim in an Aug. 24, 2009, Space News commentary, and in an Aug. 5, 2009, presentation to the Augustine committee. This is a key element in his argument against NASA, but it doesn’t ring true, so I did the calculation myself.

Multiplying each year’s NASA appropriation by the inflation factor (to 2010) for that year, and then averaging the results, yields a different picture. There’s more than one way to measure inflation (e.g., consumer-oriented, business-oriented), so I used two different indexes to provide a range. The adjusted average NASA budget from the Apollo era is between $20.4 billion (an advantage of about 13 percent over Zubrin’s $18 billion figure) and $23.8 billion (a 32 percent advantage). These numbers are in the same ballpark as the amount the Augustine committee said would be required for a viable program — an additional $3 billion per year.

In judging the validity of such a comparison, we also need to consider other factors beyond the budgetary advantage. At its Apollo peak, NASA employed twice as many civil servants as it does today, plus approximately 400,000 contractor personnel. Many technology development projects picked the low-hanging fruit of the early space age, and short-lived, disposable hardware was common and often preferred. Clearly, today’s environment is very different.


James A. Vedda