"We went to the Moon as technicians; we returned as humanitarians." --Edgar Mitchell

"We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth." --William Anders

Monday, July 4, 2011

Priorities, or Why Congressional Budgets Are Bogus

Organizing my thoughts when politics is involved feels a lot like organizing rocks. Or herding cats. Which is a rather appropriate metaphor for the whole charade, I suppose. The biggest contribution that politics has to the space program, at least once we really got started, is that Congress is where the funding comes from. Which also happens to be my biggest problem with politics.

I imagine this'll turn into a rant on the perceived cost of the space program versus the actual cost of the space program. I know that this has been covered before by other people, but I like to do my own number checking.

So let's establish some facts about the cost of the space program, shall we? NASA's budget for 2011 was just under $19 billion. Compared to your average household income, that's quite a lot!! But remember, there are 307 million people in the United States (you can find this out with a Google search), which amounts to about $62 a year per person. But that's counting dependents and those without income, so let's just look at households: with about 115 million households, that's $165 a household per annum. That's still quite a lot, but amounts to about half a dollar a day, per household. Most of those I know who are passionate about space would gladly pay twice that or much, much more! It would certainly cost less than the gaming habits of some people I know.

Before I go into comparing NASA's budget with other departments and agencies, let's break down the actual budget. If I didn't actually research where NASA was being told to put its money, I would imagine that the overwhelming portion of it was going to manned spaceflight. The operation of the space shuttle, the US portion of the International Space Station, and some aspects of the Space and Flight Support are all under Space Operations. If we add in the development of technology, that amounts to a total of $9.2 billion, which is just under half the total authorized funds for 2011. For such a prolific aspect of the space program, I find it rather surprising that it's not a higher percentage. The rest of the money in the budget goes towards things like education (only about $149 million), aeronautics (yeah, NASA still does that), and facility maintenance, with about $5 billion going towards science. This is stuff like the martian rovers, planetary probes, and spiffy satellites and orbital telescopes. As a matter of fact, they're launching the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, in late November/early December, and even before that (August) a probe named Juno is headed to Jupiter to do some pretty neat science.

Now is the part where we compare NASA's budget to some of the government's other programs. I'm going to go through and find some small stuff, and we'll compare that, and then we'll pull out the whoppers like Medicare, Social Security, and that giant armed elephant in the room: the military. We'll start with some social programs, since people are always saying that we should spend more money here at home instead of spending so much on what they see as pipe dreams. The Food and Nutrition Service is a government program that provides low-income individuals with access to good, nutritious food. This program was supposed to get around $100 billion. Let's do a little math: that's five times the entire budget of NASA. And if you think that the Department of Agriculture (which the Food and Nutrition Service is a part of) is getting a significant chunk of the money that we spend, think again. Here are some other figures, from estimates of 2011:

          Crop Insurance (yep):                    $6 billion
          Homeland Security:                        $43.5 billion
          Federal Housing Administration:     $290 billion
          Unemployment Insurance Benefits:  $130 billion
          USAID:                                           $47.4 billion
          Transportation Administrations:      $48.3 billion
          National Science Foundation:          $8.6 billion

Now, obviously, not all of these are more than NASA's budget, but I wanted to point out, in particular, that the government spends more on crop insurance than it does on the science that NASA does, and nearly as much as it does on the National Science Foundation, which I threw in there just for comparison. The number for the Federal Housing Administration? That's for loans. And USAID is for help we give to other countries - including food. The transportation administrations includes all of them, including the FAA, but these are bureaucracies, and they have over twice the total budget of NASA.

So on to the elephants, shall we? Healthcare first! Medicare receives $489.3 billion. This is not including the Children's Health Insurance Program, which is another $285 billion. I'm not saying these are unimportant expenditures; I'm just saying that for this much, it would be really nice if I could have free health insurance, too. If wishes were horses, right?

Next up: Social Security!! Did you know there're funds allocated for research and development in the Social Security Administration? What in the world are they developing? It's only something like $30-$40 million, but the fact that there's an only in front of that makes me a little ill. I was under the impression that all the Social Security Administration did was send out checks! So I'm a little confused as to how they can spend $12 billion before the checks are accounted for. So, even with the $100 billion they raise, they still spend $790 billion on benefit payments. Add that to the Medicare and CHIP, and a measly $19 billion isn't even noticed. But we're not done.

The Department of Defense....  $739.7 billion. This is more than the rest of the world spends on defense combined. I have a hard time wrapping my head around this number. Sure, we want to make certain that our troops are well trained, well equipped, and adequately compensated... But surely there comes a point when we're not getting enough bang for our buck, right? If we are spending so much on the military, and still afraid that we're going to crumble under an attack from some less well-funded enemy, perhaps we're doing something wrong. Our troops should be the most fierce! We have the most to lose: freedom and a real future,  equality, or as close as anyone's gotten yet, and opportunity. We should approach every conflict that threatens our freedom with the desperation of a cornered animal. But I think that's a rant for another time.

It's hard for me to stay on topic while writing this. Going through the Budget Request for 2012, it brings up all sorts of questions about taxes, the economy, governmental ethics, etc. It's apparently a bit of a touchy subject.

But back on topic: none of these numbers really mean anything unless they have some sort of context. In order to have some context, I'm going to share some more numbers with you. The first number is $3.7 trillion, which is the total federal budget for 2011. This means that NASA's budget is less than 0.5% of the national budget. Going back to the dollars per household illustration, this means that since each household is spending about two quarters a day keeping NASA going, these same households are spending a total of $100 a day to keep the entire government running. Except that we're not, which is why we're in debt, but that's getting off track again. Cutting the money that NASA gets isn't going to make a wit of difference in the bigger picture. A. Single. Wit. Now, in 1966, NASA had a much "smaller" budget - only about $6 billion for the entire agency. Granted, they were wholly subsumed by the push to get to the moon. Regardless of their focus, that $6 billion was 4.4% of the national budget. They're doing more with less, now, if you think about it (in 1966, $6 billion was the equivalent of over $32 billion today).

This whole thing give me a headache. I would like to consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, but wading through these tables for budget requests is more painful than trying to read my rocket propulsion textbook with no background in thermodynamics. It's no wonder that the American people - and their congressmen - are so ill informed about the entire thing. But as long as those of us who do know can make every effort to correct these gaps in knowledge, we can try to correct this perception. And possibly influence the actual politics, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

That was exhausting. No more budgets for me, this year.

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