This year marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s speech announcing plans to send Americans to the moon — and marks the end of the space shuttle program. Today, many Americans have no memory of the moon landing, and NASA isn’t a source of pride but a budget line that needs to be cut. Why spend billions exploring an uninhabitable environment when many Americans don’t have health care? To understand the importance of our space program, it’s first necessary to debunk some misconceptions about what NASA is and how it operates.
1. NASA’s purpose is to colonize space.
Founded in 1958, a year after the Soviet Union put Sputnik in orbit, NASA was never intended to open space to settlement in the same way the Transcontinental Railroad helped open the American West to pioneers. U.S. foreign policy, not science fiction dreams of cities on the moon, drove the agency.
In contrast to the Soviets’ militarized efforts, President Dwight Eisenhower wanted a peaceful space program that would demonstrate American moral superiority. This civilian agency would be a key part of America’s Cold War strategy. When Kennedy set his eyes on the moon 50 years ago, he asked his science advisers for an initiative “in which we could win.” When Ronald Reagan kicked off the space station program in 1984, his motivations weren’t much different. “We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we’re free,” he said.
Even after the Cold War, the Clinton administration recast human spaceflight as a means of turning Russia’s aerospace industry toward peaceful purposes and validating Russia’s entry into the community of Western democracies. The idea that the U.S. government would spend billions colonizing the solar system reflects the cultural impact of “Star Trek,” not reality.
2. NASA is extraordinarily expensive.
At the height of the Apollo program, NASA consumed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. In the 1960s, that was a lot of money. Today, it’s a rounding error. NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2011 is roughly $18.5 billion — 0.5 percent of a $3.7 trillion federal budget. In 2010, Americans spent about as much on pet food.
And those who complain that it is a waste to spend money in space forget that NASA creates jobs. According to the agency, it employs roughly 19,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors in and around its 10 centers. In the San Francisco area alone, the agency says it created 5,300 jobs and $877 million worth of economic activity in 2009. Ohio, a state hard-hit by the Great Recession that is home to NASA’s Plum Brook Research Station and Glenn Research Center, can’t afford to lose nearly 7,000 jobs threatened by NASA cuts.
Even more people have space-related jobs outside the agency. According to the Colorado Space Coalition, for example, more than 163,000 Coloradans work in the space industry. Though some build rockets for NASA, none show up in the agency’s job data.
3. NASA’s research is useful only in space.
Had a breast exam lately? Algorithms developed for the Hubble Space Telescope improved image processing in mammography. Been caught in a natural disaster? NASA advances in deployable radio antennae helped secure emergency communications after Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Fighting the war on terror? Miniaturized sensors that sniff the air for traces of life on other planets led to the development of easy-to-use, hand-held devices to detect explosives and chemical agents on this one. NASA technology often finds a way back to Earth.