Is NASA Worth The Money We Spend On It?

A scam, by definition, depends on deceiving people to take their money. Space exploration (at least the programs I am familiar with in the US, Europe, and Japan) is about as open and transparent as any government program gets. You can examine the NASA budget in detail, for instance. There are watchdog groups that monitor NASA spending. Almost every NASA program has a public outreach component to let the American people know where their tax dollars are going.

But I see two other ideas that might be embedded in the question of whether or not space exploration is a scam.

First, is any of the money spent on space exploration wasted on ill-advised projects or excess bureaucracy? Any answer to this kind of question is going to be highly subjective, but most people would say “yes.” That is true of any large government agency that has to deal with Congressional mandates, political pressure, constantly shifting directives, multiple contractors, etc. Many people have specifically criticized the main components of the current human space program: the International Space Station and the upcoming Space Launch System.

On the other hand, the ISS may not provide great return on investment as a science outpost, but it has been hugely important as an incubator of international technical cooperation, and as a testbed for long-duration human survival in microgravity. The problem with the SLS is not the rocket itself, which should be highly capable, but the lack of funding and political support for a larger mission to utilize it. You can’t really blame NASA for following the orders given to it, and for trying to blur the lines so it can sneak some science into politically motivated programs. It has always been this way, all the way back to the creation of NASA itself. So you could make a good case for waste, but I wouldn’t call any of that a “scam.”

Second, there is the more fundamental question: Is the whole idea of a space program a mistake? After all, we spend billions of dollars each year and what do we get in return?

There are many ways to answer this version of the question. NASA and related agencies have been powerful drivers of new technology. Modern satellite communications, weather forecasting and GPS simply would not exist without space exploration (some of it military-focused, admittedly). Modern robotics, computers, digital photography and digital video, fuel cells, and many other key technology received huge boosts from space-related R&D. Studies of space weather have been important for protecting satellites and preventing blackouts.

Space exploration has also been one of the most powerful drivers of science and technology education in this country. Ask how many of today’s leading scientists and engineers were inspired by the space program and by the science-fiction shows and movies that fed off of it. On a more subjective level, I believe exploration is extremely important for fostering a constructive sense of wonder, collective purpose and hope for the future.

The price tag for all of this is not small. Then again, it’s not that large when viewed in context. For 2016, the NASA budget is $19.3 billion, out of $3.95 trillion in federal spending. That means the US devotes about 0.5% of its budget to all things space-related. Incidentally, that includes environmental monitoring, aircraft engineering and other Earth-based functions in addition to human space exploration and robotic probes. If you are talking specifically about NASA’s planetary science program (New Horizons at Pluto, Cassini at Saturn, etc), that comes to $1.63 billion in 2016, or about 0.04% of the federal budget.

In that context, not so much. And definitely not a scam.

Written by Corey Powell