Columns, Opinion

RYAN: Full Moon, Empty Budget

A wise Instagram bio once said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Today, we’ll be heading into our solar system for a discussion of how the U.S. government doles out its taxpayer dollars. With a budget of more than $3 trillion, you would think we could invest more than a whopping 0.5 percent to research in space.

Those stats for the current fiscal year come from the U.S. Government Printing Office (which is a real thing, I promise). The report details how much cash each department received for discretionary spending. Compared to the $526 billion given to the Department of Defense, NASA’s annual budget of $17.7 billion seems like the office supply allocation.

Sunday night, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit to study the planet’s upper atmosphere, according to NASA. MAVEN, NASA’s latest project with a super edgy acronym, cost an estimated $671 million and took 10 months to reach the Red Planet, according to the Wall Street Journal. MAVEN traveled 400 million miles and is now in place to begin conducting valuable scientific data.

The American government has plenty of important programs to fund, but that does not mean we can discard invaluable scientific research. NASA should have a higher priority in the federal budget. The research done at NASA has more practical benefits than the general population can fathom.

Take the MAVEN project. Sure, it’s cost taxpayers $671 million (think of how many Pumpkin Spice Lattes that is!), but the research has an incredibly practical application. MAVEN is going to collect data from Mars’ upper atmosphere and report back. Among other things, researchers are hoping to uncover what happened to Mars’ water supply. They want to take this information and apply it to our own environment. Maybe if they can figure out what happened to Mars, we can avoid a similar, waterless, lifeless fate.

Maybe you don’t care about the future of Earth or its environment. Well, you can also thank NASA for a multitude of contributions to our society including invisible braces, scratch resistant sunglass lenses and remote-controlled ovens. Side note, to any readers who own a remote controlled oven: you’re spending your money in the wrong places.

In addition to all the scientific values, space exploration appeals to human nature. Since the beginnings of human history, people have always been searching for what comes next. Alexander the Great wanted to conquer the world. Columbus sought the Northwest Passage. Pioneers wanted to settle the western United States. Americans fought to beat the USSR to the moon. Space is what’s next.

Human nature causes us to ask questions and seek out answers. Outer space holds our future, and as a nation, we are failing to realize this. We spend hundreds of billions of dollars building bombs and tanks. More of our budget should go toward a more sustainable future for everyone.

The problem with space is that it’s not sexy. We landed on the moon 55 years ago, and NASA’s been on the decline ever since. No program has captured the hearts and minds of Americans quite like the Space Race. Back then, it was easier. Anything beyond the stratosphere was breaking news. Now, it’s a 30 second clip on the nightly news.

NASA needs a new PR strategy (where do I send my resume?). The organization should draw upon those basic human desires: the need to keep exploring and the competitive drive to be better than everybody else. If the American people are more interested in NASA, the government might just allocate some more cash to its programs.

In the most clichéd call to action yet, I’m asking you to write your Congressperson. Or be the super cool kid who talks about MAVEN in the group chat. Yes, the U.S. government needs to put more money towards NASA and other scientific research programs. However, until we keep knocking on their doors and calling their phones, nothing’s going to get done.

This could apply to a lot of things — education, healthcare or even filling the potholes your car keeps running over. Today, I’m asking you to complain to someone about how underfunded NASA is.

NASA gave us Velcro and MRI scanners and memory foam (Tempur-Pedic Swedish sleep system, anybody?). It also gave us hope and fed a generation’s imagination. Few government organizations have that potential; it’s a shame not to use it.

Just remember: Right now, 400 million miles from here, a man made object is orbiting a planet humans have never seen. It’s going to provide massive amounts of data, all incredibly relevant to the future of our planet. Why wouldn’t we want to fund more of that?

One Comment

  1. Great article and I completely second your thoughts!

    Just a small typo correction: The Apollo 11 flight occured 45 years ago and not 55 as stated in the article.

    Keep up the good work!