“The belief that we belong on the cutting edge of innovation, that’s an idea as old as America itself. We’re a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow.”
– President Barack Obama speaking during the 2nd White House Science Fair
Rarely have truer words been spoken, and certainly never at a more appropriate time. This week marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s historic journey into space on board Friendship 7, part of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission. Glen orbited the Earth 3 times in the course of his 4 hour and 56 minute flight, becoming the 1st American to travel into orbit. Although Yuri Gagarin deserves the honor of being the 1st human in space, Glenn’s flight was nonetheless one of the major events of the 20th century. It boldly embodied what Obama meant when he called us “a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow.” It’s puzzling then, in this time when we should be celebrating the heroic accomplishments of space pioneers and the White House is highlighting the talent and scientific brilliance of our young people, that President Obama chose this moment to slash the NASA budget.
The president’s budget cuts funding for NASA by over a $1 billion, a 5% decrease. It cuts 20% from the Planetary Science Division. That’s the part of NASA that’s been responsible for some of the greatest scientific discoveries in recent history. It’s long list of accomplishments include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), and the Cassini Spacecraft, not to mention multiple Martian rovers and finding strong evidence for the presence of water on both Mars and the Moon. If we’re to learn about the wonders of the universe, reach beyond the Earth and explore the possibility of life beyond our own planet, then the Planetary Science Division of NASA is our best hope of doing so, or at least it was. The proposed cuts put PSD’s mission if grave danger.
It’s easy to make the argument that space exploration is all well and good, but we can’t afford it in this economy, but that’s a false argument. NASA’s budget for 2011 was $18.7 billion, reduced to $17.7 billion in 2012. That sounds like an obscene amount of money, until you put it in perspective of the $3.5 trillion federal budget, and compare it to other things we spend money on. In 2010, the combined cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for that year alone was $170 billion, approximately 10 times the cost of the NASA budget. Even though most of the money was paid back, the bank bailout is still conservatively estimated to cost taxpayers $19 billion. Over the next 10 years the cost of the Bush era tax cuts is expected to be $3.7 trillion, almost 20 times NASA’s budget over the same period. We can afford space exploration a lot more easily than we can afford any of those.
Another common argument made against NASA is that instead of wasting money in space we should be creating jobs here at home. Again, this sounds good until you start to examine the claim in detail. When the Space Shuttle program ended, NASA lost 9,000 jobs. That figure only includes jobs lost directly by the space agency. It doesn’t include the suppliers, support services or jobs of people in the communities that serve NASA employees. Cutting NASA funding not only hampers our scientific efforts, but it costs American jobs. As Scott Hubbard, a member of the NASA Advisory Council Science Committee put it,
“Loss of human capital is an immediate and very serious risk. I just gave a lecture at NASA where I pointed out how close we are to really answering this question of, “Was there ever life on Mars?” We’ve built up the scientific momentum and we’ve got the instruments, the spacecraft, the direction to go and do this. And when you take something like this apart, the scientists go elsewhere. You lose the capability, the momentum and the knowledge that you’ve built up.”
Perhaps the best reason though for funding NASA isn’t the jobs or the scientific prestige it creates today, but what it offers the future. There are several generations of scientists and engineers who can trace their excitement about science directly to watching John Glenn and the other Mercury 7 astronauts venture into space. When the Apollo astronauts walked on the moon it gave young Americans a vision of what was possible. They took that vision, nurtured it and built upon it, and used it to create the foundation of the modern society we enjoy today. Every time we consult our smart phones or GPS devices, or diagnose illnesses with high tech medical imaging, or save a life because someone was able to get a severe weather warning in time, we are benefitting from the fruits of space science. Cutting funding for that today may be politically expedient, but it short changes future generations. It’s a betrayal of all those believers in a better tomorrow.