The problem with NASA's 2017 budget: Big on astronauts, small on probes

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Congratulations America, this Valentine's Day, you collectively spent an estimated $19.7 billion on your significant other. All those cards, flowers and special gifts are just a smidgen more than NASA's proposed budget for 2017.

OK. It's not totally fair to compare NASA's budget to Valentine's Day spending. After all, Congress does not vote on how you splurge on your bae. But the comparison gives us a good sense of proportions. NASA and the space program are tiny fractions of the U.S. economy, tokens of awesomeness rather than priorities.


If you're not convinced, here are some numbers to keep in mind: in 2015, the U.S. gross domestic product was about $18 trillion, give or take a couple hundred billions. So NASA's $19 billion budget for 2017 is a bit above 0.001% of that total. That's one thousandth of the entirety of the money the country generated in 2015.

Another way to look at it: in 2017, we will spend a bit more on school lunches for underprivileged kids ($23.5 billion) than on space exploration. It's hard to put resources toward the intergalactic future of the human race when our present includes kids who would go hungry without government assistance.



Obama's national spending plan, submitted to Congress this month, would take effect on October 1, 2016. The vast majority of the $4.1 trillion budget goes toward health care, social security, the military, and interest payments on the nation's debt. You'll find NASA's money among the $614 billion allocated for "non-defense" discretionary programs, a "cool stuff" pot that includes all the money allocated to science.

NASA's $19 billion comes in at less than 0.5% of the total budget and 3% or so of the "cool stuff" spending. NASA shares the science dollars with the National Institutes of Health ($33 billion to support medical research), the Department of Energy ($5.7 billion for energy moonshots including fusion), the Center for Disease Control ($6.95 billion for Zika, Ebola and the like), the National Science Foundation ($7.9 billion for scientific research, mostly in academic institutions and labs), and the Environmental Protection Agency ($1.8 billion for climate science and technology development).


Looking at NASA's plans for its relatively small chunk of change, what stands out to me as disappointing is NASA's cutting its budget for robotic missions to other planets by $110 million (from $1.63 billion to $1.52 billion). That reduces the amount available to, for example, explore the ocean underneath Jupiter moon Europa's ice crust.

In my view, these are the most important missions. Look at what NASA accomplished with its drone probes Viking, Voyager, Cassini, and Curiosity. Forty years after their launch, the Voyager spacecrafts, now in interstellar space, are still sending data (however episodically). Just imagine what NASA could do with more resources for rovers and probes.


Robotic missions are tremendously cost-efficient and yield incredible science. So why aren't they getting the bulk of the funding? Because it's going toward sending humans into space.

About half of NASA's budget ($8.4 billion) is allocated to space exploration. The proposed budget earmarks money for the private space companies (such as Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX) that are currently building vehicles to ferry cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station. And significant resources are devoted to the Space Launch System (SLS), the giant rocket that will theoretically be able to send a human mission to Mars by the mid-2030’s.


For next year, the Administration is asking for $1.3 billion for the rocket itself, and $1.1 billion for the crew vehicle (named Orion). Last year, the SLS/Mars program was the happy recipient of Congressional last-minute largesse. The rocket itself received $700 million in excess of the Administration’s request, while the Orion got about $180 million more than planned.

Casey Dreier, the Director of Space Policy at the Planetary Society predicts that this year as well, Congress will mark up the funding for SLS/Orion. It would appear that Republicans’ principled objections to government spending magically melt away when it comes to rockets and general space awesomeness. Slate's Phil Plait, himself a skeptic of the program, relays that SLS is jokingly referred to as the Senate Launch System.


Personally, I am not as enthusiastic about human space exploration as some (I have even been called a sociopath on Twitter for airing my doubts). We're spending more than $8 billion to get humans into space but only a little more than $1.5 billion to get robots there? That seems like a case of misplaced priorities to me.

My concerns aside, the most contentious part of the budget is the $2 billion that the Obama administration wants to allocate for NASA's Earth science, up almost $100 million from 2016. The purpose is to continue the study of Earth's climate and global warming by using remote sensing satellites. Collecting data about Earth's atmosphere and temperature greatly helps with refining climate models and predicting the future impacts of carbon pollution. Without that, no international agreements on carbon emission reductions are possible. This type of Earth science is therefore crucial for the future of humankind on Earth.


That's the scientific consensus, but some politicians disagree, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chairman of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology. He issued a scathing press release, criticizing the budget for "shrink[ing] space exploration priorities" while "disproportionately increas[ing] Earth Science accounts." Chairman Smith, who chairs the House Science Committee, is an active global warming denier. On occasions, he writes op-eds in right-wing online publications calling NOAA warming data “science fiction.” So it is not entirely surprising to see him grandstanding over relatively minuscule sums of money.

But it's worth paying attention to, because NASA's budget, while tiny compared to all other government spending, is some of our most-future looking spending. Ideally, we could convince the people of the United States to spend less on Valentine's Day, or the military, and more on NASA, but we're not asking our robots to cross their metallic fingers waiting for that one.


Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.