Ask the average American how much of the federal budget is devoted to NASA, and you’re likely to get a response in the range of 10, 12, 15 percent — or more. When people learn that less than seven-tenths of one penny of each federal budget dollar goes to NASA, they are almost universally surprised, if not appalled. When we broaden our viewpoint to consider all U.S. civil space spending — adding the money spent on space efforts by agencies like the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — our federal investment is still significantly less than eight-tenths of one cent of every tax dollar. To paraphrase Winston Churchill — perhaps never in the course of human history was so much gained by so many from so little.
The return on our national investment in civil space is enormous by any measure.
Space exploration has advanced telecommunications, aviation, navigation, weather forecasting, agriculture, medical technology, computing, entertainment, commerce and a whole host of other industries. Many of these capabilities and technologies we have developed through space exploration likely would not have been developed in its absence, even with targeted investments of similar scale.
As a direct result of the innovations, inventions and discoveries that have enabled us to explore space, our daily lives on Earth have been profoundly transformed. Yet these transformations have become so ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to imagine life without them. Even more, what we have gained from our investments in space have become so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our everyday lives that, in many cases, they have become all but invisible.
We take for granted our leadership in technology and our high standard of living without pausing to think about the history of investment in space research and development that has driven us forward for the past five decades. We did not get to this position of world leadership by accident. Rather, it required a thoughtful and sometimes politically difficult commitment to invest in our national future through space exploration and development.
Greg Stene, a professor at Wichita State University, turning George Santayana’s famous quote on its head, maintains, “Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We remember the past well and remind ourselves often of civilizations long gone whose innovations in science, technology and learning yielded knowledge that served as beacons of brilliance but who lost the spark, and their light faded. One example is the Arab Golden Age (750-1258 A.D.) that witnessed great advances in science, mathematics, technology and medicine, and preserved much of the learning from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt.
China, whose innovations from the 12th through 15th centuries eclipsed anything else in the world and yielded, among other things, solid rocket fuel, matches, a magnetic compass, sliding calipers, piston pumps, paper, printing presses, suspension bridges and a fabulous fleet of ships for exploration, provides another example. But, through bad policy choices, a loss of will or cultural dynamics, both of these golden societies lost their once-proud leadership positions and their brilliance was eclipsed.
We also remember another past, one more recent, popularly referred to as the Space Age. Spurred by a satellite gap and space race with our Cold War adversary, we made a national commitment to space that propelled us to achieve accomplishments that were solely the province of fantasy, dreams and fiction throughout our entire previous history. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to step onto another celestial body, they led the way for all humanity.
This accomplishment became the cultural reference point for the can-do ability to achieve virtually anything. How often have you heard, or even said the words yourself, “If we can put a man on the Moon…”? Our national pride in “Yankee ingenuity” and our cultural heritage as pioneers evolved into a new identity as spacefaring people — forward-looking innovators pushing the frontier of human knowledge and technology — building a better future and brighter tomorrow.
If there is a past we are condemned to repeat, our commitment to space should be that past.
Today we are living in that better future and brighter tomorrow. But we are doing so on the dividends of investments long ago relegated to history books. We are at risk of doing what our pioneer forbearers might have referred to as “eating our seed corn.”
No one questions that the emergent markets of the 21st century are going to be scientifically and technologically driven. The question is: W ho will have made the investments required to be competitive? The United States is by any measure a great nation. But even a great nation has to balance the many demands for resources among legitimate competing priorities.
This competition for resources is intense now and promises to become even more ferocious in the future with every fraction of every penny of every budget dollar scrutinized and contested.
That is why when we make these hard choices we must be sure to invest in priorities with the greatest potential to provide the best return. Increased investment in America’s civil space programs at NASA, NOAA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the NSF is just such an investment. It can have a profound and positive effect on U.S. competitiveness and technology leadership, as well as our nation’s status as a leader among nations. Clearly, we are now at a crossroads where investment in civil space is imperative.
In view of the strength with which these themes resonated in the research and development of our recent publication, “The Case for Space Exploration” — the Space Foundation is now compelled to advocate a “One Percent Solution” — funding civil space efforts at a minimum of 1 percent of the federal budget each year. This “One Percent Solution” would not be limited to NASA. Civilian space research and exploration is too fundamentally important to our nation’s future to be restricted to one agency.
We are encouraging federal policy-makers and Congress to look at expanding civilian space efforts in and beyond NASA, and also encouraging more diverse space efforts in the portfolios of NOAA, National Science Foundation and even the Federal Aviation Administration. Perhaps NOAA can take on more Earth science and spacecraft development. Maybe it is now time for the National Science Foundation to devote a portion of its grants to the space efforts undertaken by America’s universities. With the Federal Aviation Administration looking increasingly into civil passenger travel into space, it may be time it fund some of our nation’s space efforts. And perhaps it is time for other more nontraditional space agencies to begin funding programs that would contribute meaningfully to their missions such as the Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although a mere two-tenths of a penny on the dollar more than we are currently spending, funding civil space at no less than 1 percent of the federal budget is an investment that represents a bold step forward in securing a bright future for our nation. This increase will fundamentally influence U.S. competitiveness and technology in the following ways:
– Accelerate development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle and Crew Launch Vehicle on a more urgent and timely basis while completing our space shuttle and international space station obligations without compromise.
– Ensure continued robust funding for space science, particularly astronomy and robotic exploration of the solar system.
– Permit more robust pursuit of aeronautical research and development efforts that contribute to U.S. strength and competitiveness in aeronautics.
– Extend the reach of space technology into new programs and missions.
The Space Foundation believes the “One Percent Solution” provides sufficient resources to pursue all these critical mission areas in a meaningful way that enhances U.S. competitiveness. We do not advocate specific line-item amounts for any particular enterprise, but instead recommend that the administration work closely with leadership in the Congress to ensure our civil space programs bring a balanced and robust U.S. capability to each of the challenges of this new century.
Jay DeFrank is the Space Foundation’s vice president of Washington operations and executive director of research and analysis.