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Casey DreierSeptember 10, 2013

Our Debt to NASA - Fighting the Pernicious Myth of NASA as Unnecessary

Man oh man this kind of stuff gets under my skin.

Writing in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money talks about the U.S. debt limit. Money quotes:

If the debt ceiling isn’t lifted again this fall, some serious financial decisions will have to be made. Perhaps the government can skimp on its foreign aid or furlough all of NASA, but eventually the big-ticket items, like Social Security and Medicare, will have to be cut.

...

Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough other easily cuttable line items — in the end, there just aren’t that many NASAs.

Har har har, after you cut the easy stuff like NASA, you might be forced to get to something important!

Seriously, of all the truly wasteful things the government spends money on, why does Davidson pick on NASA? Is he actually implying that it's the one government agency with the least benefit to the public? Does he realize that NASA's total contribution to the federal budget is less than 0.5% and wiping it out of existence wouldn't change the deficit problem by one iota?

This attitude about NASA needs to change.

Here, I'll supply a truly substantial example of unnecessary spending: how about the $100 billion of improper payments made by the federal government? These are literally payments made without purpose, and cost the government five times more per year than all of NASA.

But there's something I find interesting here, which goes into a larger issue with many people and their attitudes about NASA. I've known scientists who, after they introduce themselves to someone new, get asked to justify their profession in light of the fact that people are hard-off in other parts of the world. How often do you have to justify the very foundation of your job to strangers?

But turn it around, can you imagine most people, or (to pull a random example) Adam Davidson attacking something like the National Park Service? Why not use the park service as a shorthand for pointless spending? Like NASA, the park service has no direct, physical justification. Like NASA, the park service serves to increase the well-being of the public. Like NASA, the park service spends billions of dollars a year (three, to be precise). So where is the flippant disregard and, frankly, disrespect for the national parks service? How many park service employees are challenged themselves in the same way?

My bet is very few, if any.

There is something wrong with our culture that we can so easily toss out "NASA" as a shorthand for "unnecessary spending." No other agency has to work so damn hard to justify its existence, despite its essentially meaningless contribution to the federal budget.

My guess is that he didn't even bother to look, or bother to care, that NASA is not as disposable as he thinks. He trotted out this lazy, patently untrue example because he personally doesn't notice that NASA is the one truly forward-looking federal agency we have. That NASA is responsible for literally (literally!) the greatest achievement in all of human history. That he uses NASA-derived technology (semi-conductors, communications satellites, hell, even velcro) almost every day.

He states that "there just aren’t that many NASAs." He's right. There's just one. And its loss would be the figurative moment when the human race stops looking up and out, turns inward, and gives up.

Read more: personal stories, Space Policy, FY2014 NASA Budget

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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