The Space Review: Space and America’s Future
More funding for NASA could allow the agency to increase the rate of Artemis missions to the Moon, with benefits for NASA and the country. (credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky)
by Frank Slazer
Monday, July 11, 2022
In about three years, NASA plans to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon as part of its Artemis program. The agency is also exploring technologies that could eventually allow humans to travel to Mars, and beyond, in future missions.
These efforts are encouraging. But they might be too bold to pull it off, given NASA’s meager budget. Of the $6.6 trillion the federal government spent in 2020, only 0.3% went to NASA.
If our country is to realize its bold vision for space exploration, we must increase funding for NASA.
To its credit, the Biden administration has requested $26 billion from Congress for NASA’s 2023 budget: an 8% increase from this year. Yet this is below the current rate of inflation. And Congress could further reduce that demand in the coming weeks.
|If our country is to realize its bold vision for space exploration, we must increase funding for NASA.|
NASA is already leveraging commercial space investments from the private sector to leverage its resources, while building on the international partnerships of the International Space Station. Already, Canada, Japan and the European Space Agency have committed to participate in NASA’s exploration program. But NASA’s international partners have much smaller budgets, and NASA remains the biggest customer of space exploration companies.
In other words, NASA still leads the pace in human space exploration efforts.
Yet what the National Research Council said in 2014 remains true: “The only successful pathways to land humans on the surface of Mars require spending to outpace inflation for an extended period of time.”
Ironically, while NASA faces fewer resources than before, the United States has become much more prosperous in the decades since the first moon landings. In fact, the size of the US economy has more than doubled in the past 20 years alone.
Historically, NASA funding peaked in 1964 at the equivalent of approximately $35 billion in today’s dollars. Since then, our economy has almost quadrupled in size. But NASA fell about a third in inflation-adjusted dollars.
As a result, our nation has continually had to scale back its space exploration ambitions. Consider that NASA’s current long-range plan only allows for one lunar landing per year after Artemis 4, and those missions will last less than two weeks.
This approach fails to capitalize on the benefits of space exploration. NASA missions don’t just advance our understanding of the cosmos. They drive technological progress, demonstrate global leadership, promote national unity and raise environmental awareness.
A more ambitious plan for NASA could increase those dividends. For example, there aren’t enough Americans today pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, math, or advanced manufacturing. People of color and women are disproportionately underrepresented in these fields. Our country’s commitment to inclusive space exploration will help inspire a diverse new generation of Americans to pursue STEM careers that lead to good middle-class jobs.
|If NASA were funded to enable at least two moon landing missions per year, it could more quickly develop technologies for lunar surface exploration and much more.|
In addition to inspiring America’s next generation, consider our greatest geopolitical rival, China. As its Belt and Road Initiative and other efforts show, China is clearly focused on promoting the superiority of its autocratic system over the world. These efforts include space, where China has greatly expanded its capabilities. With at least three robotic lunar landings planned for this decade, China aims to be the world’s greatest space power by 2045. China also plans to bring samples from Mars back to Earth a full two years ahead of NASA.
For decades, the United States has led the world in human space exploration. Abdicating this leadership role to China could jeopardize US national security, as there is considerable overlap between space and defense technologies and their industrial base and workforce.
If NASA were funded to enable at least two moon landing missions per year, it could more quickly develop technologies for lunar surface exploration, better understand the long-term effects of the Moon’s partial gravity on astronauts , increasing the efficiency of its manpower and moving around brings us much closer to sending Americans to Mars.
It would undoubtedly inspire future generations and ensure America’s continued leadership in space exploration.
The September 11 attacks, the Great Recession, COVID-19 and other challenges have sapped two generations of our nation’s young people from the optimism for the future that has long defined America. For that reason alone, America needs a bolder plan for NASA and space exploration more than ever. Our nation needs to feel again that our reach can exceed our grasp. More investment in NASA is an achievable, bipartisan way to a brighter future.
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