dreaming about the nasa that could’ve been…

If NASA was funded as well as most Americans think it is, we would live in an amazing world straight out of our retrofuturistic dreams.

floating city
Illustration by Zane Bien

A recent survey by a major polling agency found that half of Americans are in favor of cutting back on space exploration programs in light of today’s economy. Not only that, but the people we would hope to be the next generation of scientists and engineers working on new space exploration projects, those in the 18 to 29 age group, are among the strongest supporters of slashing NASA’s budget. And on top of that, only 64% of those surveyed had a favorable view of the agency, down from 81% in 2008, but up from 2007’s rough patch of 58% approval though not by much.

Still, public approval is one thing. It goes up and down. But the big question we should ask is whether people know that cutting NASA’s budget to help the nation’s economic woes is akin to dropping the satellite radio subscription on a new luxury car to cut the lease payment by $100 a month, i.e. an odd feat of wishful thinking. As it turns out according a 2007 piece by The Space Review, they really don’t.

It seems that people tend to estimate NASA’s funds at 24% of the federal budget. In 2009, this estimate would mean that the agency received $648 billion, though the sum would run closer to $500 billion if we exclude that year’s stimulus packages. That would place NASA on par with the funding for the U.S. military. And no, not that of the Army or the Navy or the Air Force, the entire military, as in the Department of Defense. Well, it can be fun to dream every once in a while. If space exploration was fueled with tens of trillions of dollars over the last half a century, there’s a very good chance that we would be outposts across the solar system by now.

From lunar bases to research stations on Mars, to volcanic observatories on Io, to submarines on Europa and balloons surveying Titan’s lakes, there would be money to pay for it all with plenty left over for advanced propulsion and design projects. And just think of all the hundreds of thousands of jobs that would be required to keep all the current and future exploration projects up and running. From computer scientists to welders, they’d all be vital to the day to day operation of NASA’s missions, a number of them would even be required to work in space.

Even that’s not the full extent of a hyper-funded space agency. Consider how many contractors would need to fill the orders for new rockets, space planes, satellites and interplanetary internet networks. And yes, attempts at interstellar travel wouldn’t be out of the question either. When the money flows by the billion, why not use it? After all, government funding is use it or loose it. If you won’t spend what’s allocated to you, there’s a very good chance that it won’t be budgeted in for next year.

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned all the innovations which would make their way down to TVs and camcorders, to new energy sources, computers, medical technology and aviation. Our would would be very different and a hell of a lot closer to our science-fiction dreams than it is today. But unfortunately, that’s not how our money was being spent. NASA’s annual budget is less than 1% of the national outlay and many of the inventions I was just imagining were never built. The money for them was never allocated and the investments were never made. It’s really a shame if you think about it. But hey, at least we have ambitious aerospace startups with big dreams and lofty goals for space exploration…

# space // government / money / nasa / space exploration

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