The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

ISS illustration
NASA once staked the future of many of its science programs on the ISS, only to later abandon them as the station fell out of favor. (credit: NASA)

Do NASA’s past spending profiles foretell the future?

Based on the history of past NASA budgets, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has concluded that scientists should be grateful rather than complain about the share they receive. He offered the following statistics: during the Apollo era science received 17 percent of NASA’s budget; during the 1990s, 24 percent; and today, 32 percent. That means almost a doubling since the golden years of Apollo, if you do not take inflation into account. But does the increase for science really reflect a big gain for NASA’s research portfolio? A short review of history can be informative.

In the ten years after NASA was formed in 1958, most of its budget was allocated to three offices, Manned Space Flight (OMSF), Space Science and Applications (OSSA), and Advanced Research and Technology (OART); the latter organization included aeronautics research. At the dawn of the Space Age only a relatively small segment of the greater scientific community had an interest in using space to expand its research horizons. Nevertheless, a few forward-thinking scientists, such as James Van Allen, took advantage of this new frontier and with NASA’s help made significant discoveries.

Comparing Apollo-era science with today’s programs has little value if the attempt is to rationalize budget allocations.

During this same time, a small number of planetary scientists who believed that the Moon was an important research objective participated in four Pioneer, nine Ranger, seven Surveyor, and five Lunar Orbiter missions. For these programs the learning curve was steep and not all missions were successful. Lunar Orbiter provided important scientific information about the Moon although it was designed primarily as a crucial support program for Apollo. Surveyor, conceived as a science program, also supported the Apollo program. In addition, NASA funded physics, astronomy, meteorology, communications, geodetic, biosatellite, and planetary programs. The first major planetary program, Mariner, had its start in 1961.

From 1959 to 1968, the total spent for all the above science programs was some $2.8 billion. Apollo, not conceived as a science program, eventually spent some $350 million, in equivalent 1972 dollars, for all its science activities, including training, experiments, and post-mission data and sample analysis. During the same period aeronautics R&D received $258 million, a small percentage of the total OART budget, but it managed to support V/STOL, supersonic, and hypersonic (X-15) research. You got a lot of bang for your bucks in those days.

Congress appropriated $26.4 billion for all NASA research and development from 1959 to 1968, over 80 percent of NASA’s total budget. Space science, depending on how you kept the books, really consumed only 12 percent of the R&D budget in those years. The largest percentage of the NASA R&D budget was spent to develop various launch vehicles and manned spacecraft. By the end of the Apollo era one new, major science program, Viking, had survived; the only remnant of the original Voyager program initiated in 1965. Most of OSSA’s budgets were used to support the programs already underway.*

What is the point of this brief history lesson? Comparing Apollo-era science with today’s programs has little value if the attempt is to rationalize budget allocations. The “easy” space science missions to Earth orbit and the Moon undertaken during that time are behind us. Space Station overruns and tight budgets spawned the “faster, better, cheaper” science of the 1990s. A NASA Inspector General report in 2001 determined it wasn’t a “better” decade and thus it should not be an example of how NASA’s future budgets should be divided.

Science investigations today often require complex, complementary measurements that may result in the need to develop “great observatories”, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, or multifaceted planetary missions. Robotic planetary missions that will include sample return, the next important step toward understanding the history and evolution of our solar system, will be very costly. Looking back at Earth from orbit has also become more expensive; witness the cost of developing NPOESS. Sensors and instrument packages are more sophisticated and take longer to build and test as mission objectives become more intricate. As a result of these trends, those involved dedicate a major fraction of their professional careers to achieving successful outcomes and continuing financial support of science teams is a necessary byproduct.

NASA budgets should be constructed based on need and priorities, not historical trends.

In spite of these difficulties, the space science community has grown enormously in size since the end of Apollo. Many now view measurements made from space as the preferred way to make important new discoveries as epitomized by the Hubble Space Telescope. Other very critical studies, such as measuring the effects of global climate change, depend on using space assets. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the increased interest in using space for science. A unique space research facility in orbit, the International Space Station (ISS), has not lived up to its early promise. Hundreds of scientists were enticed into proposing to conduct research on the ISS only to find that, to date, their time and efforts were largely wasted.

What should be the proper allocation of NASA’s budgets for science and research? The answer will differ depending on who is asked. What is certain, however, is that the debate will not be improved by dismissing the concerns of the space science community that understands the nation’s space program is not all about science. NASA budgets should be constructed based on need and priorities, not historical trends. Although politics will probably always play a role in how taxpayer funds are spent, it will be surprising if those needs will be determined as the result of a “political tactic.”