On Thanksgiving day, Comet ISON, which many astronomers dubbed the “Comet of the Century,” swept about 730,000 miles above the sun’s surface. NASA scientists had pretty much de-clared ISON dead, predicting the icy snowball wouldn’t survive its brush with the sun, but over the weekend, signs appeared that the comet actually emerged from the sun’s grasp.
The damaged comet, limping away from the sun, seems to me to be a perfect celestial analogy of our space program, and the current state of NASA.
You see, Republicans hate two things – science and spending money. Whenever they run for office, they always cry and bemoan the debt while browbeating us with climate change denial and anti-evolution nonsense. They tell us taxes are too high and that important choices need to be made – except when it comes to military spending. Calls for cutting the budget of our bloated, oversized military are drowned out by cries that any cut, no matter how small, will cost American lives
Just to put things into perspective, from 2011 to 2012 1,624 Americans were killed as a result of severe weather (often as a result of the climate change Republicans claim doesn’t exist). In that same time period, just four innocent Americans were killed as a result of foreign-inspired terrorism. More people in the United States were killed by dogs from 2011 to 2012 than by foreign-led terrorists bent on destroying our way of life.
Yet we treat our military budget as sacrosanct, despite all the evidence to the contrary about its overblown need in the world. The U.S. spent more on defense in 2012 than the next 13 countries with the highest defense budgets combined. Twenty percent of the entire federal budget was spent on defense in 2011, and since 2001, the base defense budget has soared from $287 billion to $530 billion (and that’s not in-cluding base costs in Afghanistan and Iraq).
Military spending will decrease slightly in 2013 thanks to Sequestration, but not without calls from the right about the threat to Army readiness, American safety and the overall risk of our national security.
If more American soldiers are dying every year from suicides than foreign attacks, one might question the need and benefit of having an oversized military blanketing the globe. What exactly are we getting with every $4.3 million we plunk down for a SM-6 missile, or the $69.3 million we spend on every MV-22 Osprey aircraft? What long-term benefit will we derive from the $66.7 billion we spent on the failed F-22 Raptor program, in which a grand total of zero aircraft saw combat?
Unlike excessive military spending, the benefits to our culture, society and future are clearly understood for every NASA mission that widens our view of the universe. No one ever had to ask the value of studying the soil on Mars, or the need to fund a telescope that can catalogue the very beginnings of our universe. No one criticizes the need for communication satellites or weather surveying equipment, or bemoans the fact we’ve visited every planet in the solar system (Pluto is set to be visited by the New Horizons probe in 2015).
Nevertheless, NASA is an easy target for budget-cutting politicians, especially those whose scientific curiosity is often limited by a book with a cross on the cover.
During the Apollo space program, NASA’s share of the federal budget was about 4.5 percent, and that was during both the Vietnam War and the so-called Cold War. Today, NASA’s budget is less than one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, and it’s about to get even smaller. It’s four-tenths of one penny on a tax dollar. As popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of pointing out, “If I held up the tax dollar, and I cut horizontally into it, four-tenths of one percent of its width, it doesn’t even get you into the ink.”
Under sequestration, NASA is forced to reduce its top line expenses by about 5 percent. Republicans in Congress want to cut NASA’s budget by $16.6 billion for 2014, which is $300 million less than it received in 2013 and $1.1 billion less than President Obama requested for 2014.
Thanks to budget cuts, NASA is facing the prospect of being forced to shut down one of two accomplished space missions – the Mars rover Curiosity or the Cassini deep-space mission to Saturn. Cassini has already been a spectacular mission, sending back both stunning views and a wealth of information from the inspiring ringed planet. Meanwhile, Curiosity is set to begin its climb up the slopes of Mount Sharp on Mars, and has also sent loads of information that will allow us to plan manned missions more safely. Nevertheless, one of these programs, which costs less than half the money the Department of Defense is estimated to spend maintaining its golf courses, may get the axe.
It might actually get worse than that. Earlier in the month, a portion of a Congressional Budget Office document was unearthed that suggests ending all human space flight activities as an option for reducing the deficit.. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this move would save $73 billion between 2015 and 2023. For sake of comparison, the much-maligned F-35 fighter jet program is now expected to cost taxpayers $857 billion.
In 2009 we spent more on bank bailouts than we have in the 50 year history of NASA funding. It’s not that we can’t afford to increase NASA’s meager budget, it’s that we chose not to.
Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe.