NASA's budget is set by an annual process that begins with a proposal from the White House and ends with legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President. The budget specifies funding amounts for programs and projects in human spaceflight, space science, aeronautics, technology development, and education.
NASA's budget peaked during the Apollo program in the 1960s. After the United States won the race to the Moon, space exploration lost political support and NASA's budget was cut significantly. Since the 1970s, NASA has hovered between 1% and 0.5% of all U.S. government spending.
NASA's annual budget since its inception, adjusted for inflation using the NASA New Start Inflation Index. The vertical axis displays NASA's total congressional appropriation in billions of dollars. The horizontal axis is fiscal years. Detailed data including outlays, alternate inflation indicies, non-inflation adjusted numbers, and White House budget requests are available to view or to download as an Excel spreadsheet.
NASA's budget for fiscal year (FY) 2021 is $23.3 billion. This represents a 3% increase over the previous year's amount. The final budget restored a number of science programs slated for cancellation by the White House, and significantly underfunded the human landing system for the planned lunar return effort.
NASA Budget Breakdown
NASA is internally divided into major program areas, each of which receives funding to manage their own projects. Funding varies year-to-year, but generally about 50% of NASA's annual budget is spent on human spaceflight activities, 30% on robotic missions and scientific research, and the remainder split between aeronautics, technology development programs, staff salaries, facilities management, and other overhead.
None of NASA's budget is used for national defense or intelligence gathering programs; it is a civilian agency responsible for the peaceful exploration of space. The Department of Defense and a handful of intelligence agencies manage their own space programs.
How NASA's Budget Is Made
The White House provides a detailed budget proposal to Congress every February which kicks off an annual process known as "appropriations", which ultimately results in legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President that funds the federal government.
The proposal that begins this process is called the "President's Budget Request", which itself is the outcome of year-long negotiations, first within NASA and then between NASA and the White House's budget office. The President's Budget Request includes a justification and explanation for all of the space program's activities. It can also contain proposals to cancel projects or to begin new ones. The priorities reflected in the budget request reflect that of the President, and the document can just as easily be read as a political statement by the executive branch.
The President's Budget Request does not carry the force of law, though it does set the terms of the debate for the legislation that is subsequently written by Congress.
NASA's Budget (part 1) The President's Budget Request kicks off the yearly budget season in United States. It takes a year to put together, and Congress plays no part. Why is that?
Once the White House sends its budget proposal to Congress, key congressional committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives craft legislation to fund NASA. Through this process, Congress decides whether to accept or reject proposals contained in the President's Budget Request and whether congressional funding levels for NASA's programs and initiatives will match, exceed, or fall short of the levels proposed by the President.
The legislation must be passed by Congress and signed by the President before the start of the fiscal year on 1 October. If not, NASA loses its authority to spend money and cannot honor contractual obligations, provide paychecks, or otherwise function.
How NASA's Budget Is Made (part 2) Once the President's Budget Request is finished, there are still several more steps before the budget is complete. Here we take you through the second part of the budgeting process and explain why it's so important to follow in order to help NASA get the most money it can every year.
Note: Lessons 3 - 5 of The Planetary Society's free online course, Space Advocacy 101, explore this topic at greater depth.
NASA's Budget, Compared
The majority of spending by the United States government pays for social welfare programs and is not subject to annual congressional approval. This spending is referred to as "mandatory". Only about 30% of all U.S. government spending requires approval every year by Congress—a category of spending referred to as "discretionary". The Defense Department and related activities account for roughly half of all discretionary spending. All other government agencies and activities—including NASA—are funded from the remaining amount.
The United States government spent approximately $4.5 trillion in fiscal year 2019, of which just 0.5% ($22.6 billion) was provided to NASA. In this chart, shades of blue represent mandatory spending programs; shades of orange are discretionary programs that require annual appropriations by Congress. Defense costs include Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. Source: Office of Management and Budget Historical Tables 8.5 and 8.7.
Where NASA's Budget Is Spent
NASA spends its money on Earth, not in space. NASA employs about 17,000 people and supports the employment of tens of thousands more through contracts and grants made in every state of the union. Last year NASA spent 73.5% of its total budget on contracts with nearly 5,000 businesses, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions across the United States. NASA's major contractors—Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences—are the biggest recipients of NASA funding, though they in turn work with many additional supplies and businesses.
The top 10 states receiving NASA contracts in 2019. See the full list, including previous fiscal years, in this Google Spreadsheet. Source: NASA Procurement Data View.
Benefits of NASA
According to a report by The Tauri Group, NASA provides broad social and economic benefits to the United States. In particular, NASA:
- Supports technology development and skilled manufacturing, creating positive ripples throughout the economy larger than other federal agencies on average.
- Spurs innovation and business growth.
- Advances space-related industries and has made contributions that directly impact people every day: including the first weather satellites, telecommunications, remote sensing, and GPS technologies.
- Promotes international collaboration and supports peaceful foreign policy.
- Inspires people around the world; it is one of the best "brands" of the United States.
- Motivates and inspires people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.