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Hecht, Zan

Mr. Bruce Saunders

H-US HIS GEO B, Period 2

April 3, 1998
 
 
 

NASA's Money Problems


 
 
 
 
 

NASA's purpose is to further our scientific knowledge, and it gets 13.6 billion dollars a year to do so (Lawler). In contrast, the federal government spends more that a quarter trillion dollars on the Department of Defense, a program whose purpose is to kill people and destroy property (Defense). NASA has been forced to cancel or curtail important missions and to lay-off tens of thousands of employees, and the agency's problems are getting worse. Congress has been reducing NASA's budget every year since 1991 (Friedman), and plans to continue doing so until at least the year 2000 (Lawler). This decline in funding for NASA jeopardizes mission safety, holds back scientific advancement, and has a negative impact on the nation's economy. To solve this problem, Congress should increase NASA's funding, and pay for it by decreasing the Department of Defense's budget by a small amount.

Funding cuts for NASA can be traced back to the end of the "space race." After NASA beat the Russians to the moon, the public's excitement about NASA projects began to erode. In the 1980's, when Congress was trying to find ways to reduce government spending, NASA became an easy target. At the time, the majority in Congress felt that NASA could survive with less money. The Apollo program had ended and the development of the Space Shuttle was complete. Another reason that Congress has been cutting funding, according to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is that he believes space exploration and development will only advance if the government gets out of the way (Friedman).

Since 1994, Congress has decreased NASA's budget by about 25 percent, adjusting for inflation ("Short-Changing"). NASA has managed to adjust to this rapidly decreasing budget by reorganizing priorities and rethinking the size and scope of missions. The new NASA motto for all missions is, "faster, better, cheaper." NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin stated in an interview with author Andrew Chaikin that NASA has been able to function under the lower budget by using modern technology and new approaches to increase productivity (Chaikin, "Times", 50).

Congress has seen this ability to function with a reduced budget as a sign that funding can be lowered even more, which would pose a serious threat to NASA. According to Goldin, NASA "is now at the very edge" (Chaikin, "Times", 50). Any more cuts would force NASA to cancel major programs, including the planned manned exploration of Mars, and to fire even more employees.

Unfortunately, Congress has planned more cuts. By the year 2000, Congress plans to cut about 750 million dollars from NASA, adjusting for inflation (Eisele 6).

One of the major concerns about NASA's declining budget is that safety might be compromised. Running an agency as complex as NASA safely costs a lot of money, and NASA might not be able to afford adequate safety on a lower budget. If Congress lowers the budget further, NASA's currently very good safety record probably will be tarnished.

According to Daniel Golden, it is safer to ride in the Space Shuttle than to test experimental military aircraft (Chaikin, "Times", 52). In all, NASA has only lost ten astronauts while the were working on a mission (Hecht 26), while hundreds of test pilots die every year.

If NASA has to compromise astronaut safety because of a lower budget, many lives could be lost. In the past, when NASA has chosen the cheapest way instead of the safest way, bad things have happened. Both of NASA's greatest disasters, the failed mission of Apollo 13 and the Challenger explosion, were related to NASA's attempts to save money.

When NASA was testing Apollo 13, a part that was used only for the tests was found to be broken. Instead of fixing it, which would take time and money, the engineers took a shortcut, which damaged a component in the oxygen tanks. This damaged component later caused the explosion that nearly killed the three astronauts on board. If NASA had repaired the faulty part, the mission would not have failed (Lovell and Kluger 375-378).

The morning of the final launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the temperature was below freezing. The Space Shuttle is not supposed to be launched in cold weather, but a delayed launch, costs a million dollars per day. NASA decided to go ahead with the Challenger launch, and, because of the cold, fuel leaked out of a frozen seal in one of the booster rockets. This caused the Space Shuttle to explode, killing all seven people on board. If NASA had been willing to spend extra money to ensure the safety of the astronauts, the disaster would not have occurred (Feynman 113-188).

Astronauts are beginning to speak out about safety issues. Several NASA officials have said that the astronauts are increasingly worried that budget cuts could undermine safety. According to former astronaut James Bagian, "Everybody is concerned about it [because] any time you have changes in a system that seems to be running well, there is always a chance for [a] glitch to occur" (Vartabedian)

A related concern is that NASA employees might be working in unsafe conditions. As with any other construction company or research laboratory, many safety precautions are needed. These elaborate but effective safety measures are expensive, and budget cuts could compromise the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands of employees working for NASA.

Scientific advancement would also threatened if Congress continues to cut funding. Already, NASA's exploration of space has been hampered by the agency's low budget. Almost every major NASA program has been cut short due to budget constraints, including Apollo. Future missions will be able to do less research, because to do more would cost an extra few million dollars.

Many programs have been canceled by NASA for budget reasons. Originally, Apollo was supposed to have thirteen moon missions, but only ten actually went to the moon. Because of this, we never explored the lunar poles or backside. After Apollo, NASA had planned to have a space station on the moon, but Congress did not want to fund additional manned moon exploration (Chaikin, Moon). Ever since Mariner 4 flew by MARS in 1964, NASA has wanted to put a person on Mars. Because of budget constraints, NASA has only recently begun studying how to actually do it, and now Congress wants them to stop in order to save money.

Scientific advancement has also been curtailed in unmanned NASA missions. In 1990, NASA sent the space probe Magellan to make a radar map of Venus. Once a low resolution two-dimensional map was completed, funding to the mission was canceled, and a higher resolution, three-dimensional map was never made. In Mars missions planned for the next millennium the amount of data that can be sent back to earth is severely limited due to funding constraints. Many other missions have also ended prematurely, and so less has been learned about our solar system.

When NASA's funding is cut, the impact extends beyond safety and scientific issues. Smaller budgets have resulted in layoffs for many employees. In 1996, for example, NASA announced that it would fire 41 percent of the people working on the Space Shuttle, leaving only 21,000. By comparison, over 400,000 people worked on the Apollo missions. NASA's ten major research centers have had to fire up to 95 percent of their employees (Vartabedian). Whenever that many jobs are cut, there is a negative impact on our economy. Many of the people fired become displaces and economically disadvantaged, which harms the economy.

The decline of scientific discovery and technological advancement that would occur if NASA had a lower budget would also harm the economy. Technology developed by NASA has not only make many manufacturing processes easier and cheaper, but has also opened up new markets. Hundreds of companies can link their success to NASA.

Many items that we use today were invented by NASA. Velcro, invented for the early manned missions is used everywhere, from shoes to sofas to briefcases to diapers. The tiles NASA designed to protect the Space Shuttle from the intense heat of reentry are now used in many industrial manufacturing processes.

NASA technology has also open many new markets. Without NASA technology, commercial satellites would probably not exist. A huge market has opened up in commercial satellite launch and construction. Many companies, from television networks to phone companies, rely on these satellites to do business.

NASA's financial problems cannot be solved unless Congress increases NASA's budget. In order to afford this, Congress could reduce the projected increase to the budget of the Department of Defense (DoD) by a small amount, probably about 1 percent of their total budget. This way, NASA would obtain the necessary funds, and Congress would not need to cut other popular programs.

Even if Congress never cuts NASA's budget again, NASA will still be getting less money every year because of inflation, so an increase in their budget is needed (Short-Changing). Second, the DoD's budget is currently 254.9 billion dollars, and grows larger every year. Of those 254.9 billion dollars, 36.6 billion dollars are allocated for research and development, or studying how to kill and cause destruction (Defense). NASA, whose purpose is to further our scientific knowledge, is only getting 13.6 billion dollars (Lurie). Congress should take a little money from trying to do harm, and put it into doing good.

Congress should start by giving NASA enough extra money each year to compensate for inflation, or about 275 million dollars. Then, each year, Congress should give NASA what they are requesting, about 14.6 billion 1998 dollars, adjusting for inflation each year. This money should be deducted from the DoD's budget by slightly reducing the amount of projected annual increase, with the DoD determining how to absorb this slightly less generous budget.

If Congress continues to deny NASA the money it needs, our scientific knowledge, NASA's safety, and our economy will be adversely affected. NASA's future is very important, and, as House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, we are on the verge of enormous "frontiers of knowledge and opportunity." NASA's discoveries will enrich our lives and "dazzle our imagination with hope and optimism" (qtd. in Friedman). We cannot let this opportunity and hope for the future slip away.
 
 



 
 
 
 
 
Works Cited

 
 
 

Chaikin, Andrew. "Aiming High in Hard Times." Popular Science Feb. 1996: 50-53.

- - -. A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Department of Defense Budget for FY 1999. [Online] Available http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb1998/b02021998_bt026-98.html, Feb. 2 1998.

Eisele, Anne. "NASA Budget declines Again in 1999 Request." Space News 9 Feb. 1998: 6.

Feynman, Richard P. "What Do You Care What Other People Think?". New York: Norton, 1889.

Friedman, Louis. "Retreating From the Final Frontier." Christian Science Monitor 1 Sep. 1995: 18.

Hecht, Zan. "The History of the U.S. Space Program." Unit Notebook, 1997.

Lawler, Andrew. "NASA Faces Billion Dollar Problem." Science 278 (1997): 1391.

Lovell, Jim, and Jeffrey Kluger. Apollo 13. New York: Pocket Books, 1994. Rpt. Of Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13.

Lurie, David. Fiscal Year 1999 Estimates. [Online] Available Http://ifmp.nasa.gov/codeb/budget/fy99/summaries/MULTI_YEAR_BUDGET.doc, Jan. 06, 1998.

"Short-Changing NASA." Space News 23 Feb. 1998: 20.

Vartabedian, Ralph. "NASA Staff Cuts Stir Fears for Shuttle Safety." Los Angeles Times 24 Mar. 1996: A1+.