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

Posted by Casey Dreier

10-09-2013 16:08 CDT

Topics: personal stories, Space Policy, FY2014 NASA Budget

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.

See other posts from September 2013


Or read more blog entries about: personal stories, Space Policy, FY2014 NASA Budget


Bob Ware: 09/10/2013 07:01 CDT

Casey, please take a collection of examples and what you just wrote and send it to him: If you have an address for him please post it. I would like for that liberal extremist to hear loud and clear from me. That view point of his/theirs sets me off beyond descriptive words. Thanks.

Casey Dreier: 09/10/2013 10:08 CDT

Bob: Let's avoid political categories. My point with the NEA and park service examples was that Davidson isn't thinking about his example of NASA as unnecessary spending -- many other things the government does are hard to justify by that same standard that people often apply to the space program. I'm for the NEA and the park service, as I am for government investment in NASA! This is yet another example of sloppy thinking as to what it means to have a space program. That's what needs to change, and that's what can change if we push back on this, but only if we push back in a way that avoids name calling and is respectable. Davidson isn't anti-NASA, he just wasn't thinking. I encourage you to leave a thoughtful comment on the piece on their website.

J William Pope: 09/10/2013 10:35 CDT

A problem is that there are, in fact, too many NASAs. There's the good NASA, which carries out its original function: Such as, you know, space exploration. There's the bad little NASAs, like the NASA that gets embroiled in the global warming debate. The NASA (in this case, NASA TV) that shows muppets teaching kids about photosynthesis, teenagers playing with GPS as treehouse sleuths, and dumbed-down reassurances to the public that yes, we do indeed send supplies to the ISS so, no, the astronauts won't starve or run out of air. Additionally, there's the ever-present concern with "diversity" at NASA (we need black/gay/transsexual/deaf/albino astronauts and NOW!). I can imagine a full-on push to make the ISS handicapped-accessible and culturally inoffensive. Focus, please. Leave the social justice planning to the professional community organizers out there. But please keep them the hell away from NASA.

Paul McCarthy: 09/11/2013 03:22 CDT

Don't misunderstand and think that I'm challenging your overall thrust - which obviously I'd fully support. I haven't seen the whole article, but is it impossible that he was trying to make the overall point that just knocking-off individual "discretionary" budget items just won't fill the hole anyway, and that: "eventually the big-ticket items, like Social Security and Medicare, will have to be cut", and that, to make that point, he deliberately chose what he assumes is the MOST glamorous, most loved, possibly most worthwhile in his own eyes, government project, to dramatise his article? But if so, evidently he didn't get his point across very well!

Pyrard: 09/11/2013 03:51 CDT

Casey: The NEA’s budget is also a couple of orders of magnitude less than NASA’s ($155 million vs. $17.8 billion). You’re making a category error there. It’s also generally one of the first agencies that’s targeted for cuts and was heavily cut back (in part due to culture war issues) during the 1990s. I’m not sure if “people like Davidson” (whatever that means) would support cutting it further, but it’s a poor proxy for NASA.

Casey Dreier: 09/11/2013 07:05 CDT

Pyrard: It wasn't the best example to use, and I've actually gone and removed the NEA reference from the piece. As you implied, it's an example that triggers a lot of unrelated (and distracting) responses from people. I've focused on the park service as a counter example as that tends to be more universally accepted by the public and less divisive.

Casey Dreier: 09/11/2013 07:09 CDT

Paul: I'd like your take to be right! Maybe Davidson will clarify. That's not how I read it though, and I think he's using NASA as a shorthand for "unnecessary," which I think is detrimental if allowed to continue in our culture.

Matt: 09/11/2013 12:46 CDT

To the people who knock NASA, I would counter that "Then why waste money on religion, psychology, health, non-essential food items, or non-essential anything?" Historically, the "flat earth society" types are frequently harmful. At one time people didn't understand how raw sewage can spread fatal disease. I can only imagine the poor engineers and scientists trying to convince the first town authorities that sanitary waste systems were important for health. I am certain they were met with much dismissal.

Bob Ware: 09/12/2013 08:33 CDT

Casey - I'm sorry but I did really loose my cool. You are correct. I've heard and seen these view points succeed to a great detriment over the decades that were really hurtful to space exploration and the associated improvements and knowledge loss that comes from NASA as a result. Oh yes I know that I know better and need to check myself on these writings when I hear about them.

wingnut: 04/05/2014 06:11 CDT

How much is spent on animation?

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