The Mythical Penny for Nasa

Nasa’s supporters chafe at the constraints the space agency’s budget imposes. They wistfully look back at the Apollo years when Nasa received more than 4% of the federal budget. That share has declined to 0.48%. Astronomer and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson summed it up in his 2012 testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation: 

Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that—a penny on a dollar—we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.

Space advocates picked up on Tyson’s testimony to make “penny for Nasa” a rallying cry. The penny versus ha’penny argument creates the impression of an agency in decline. If only Washington would restore the budget to its rightful level, they argue, Nasa could get on with the business of going boldly into space. There’s just one catch.

Penny-for-Nasa isn’t true

Nasa’s inflation-adjusted average budget of $18.9 billion a year has been remarkable stable in the 21st Century. Nasa’s budget averaged $18.9 billion during the Bush-the-Younger Administration and a slightly lower $18.7 billion during the Obama Administration. Hardly the collapse that the penny-for-Nasa argument implies. 

So did Neil deGrasse Tyson lie to us?

No. He used statistics to spin a political debate. (If it's politics it isn't lying.) The penny-for-Nasa argument creates a sense of crisis by conflating two trends - Nasa’s stable budget and rising federal spending.

Nasa’s share of the budget fell because the total budget grew - not because Nasa’s budget declined. The actual math makes no difference to the penny-for-Nasa proponents. Nasa deserves a larger, fair share of the budget. There's just one problem.

It isn’t Nasa’s money

Americans grant Congress the power to spend their taxes. The political sausage-making isn’t pretty to watch, but it produces a budget that reflects an American consensus. The consensus awards Nasa $18.9 billion a year. 

Penny-for-Nasa advocates may say that this share isn’t “fair”, but Americans won’t support higher budgets without a good reason. Unfortunately, that reason doesn’t exist. America’s pioneering spirit, technological innovation, scientific discoveries, inspiring America’s youth, and all of the other cases for space don't justify higher budgets in most Americans' minds. Those are the reasons Nasa gets $18.9 billion a year.

Penny-for-Nasa doesn’t mean what you think it means

Washington has set new records for deficit spending and national debt ever since the balanced budget of 2001. No matter which party wins next year’s Presidential election, the political climate will drive new rounds of budget cuts.

Nasa’s budget has remained the same ever since the balanced budget of 2001. That is the true lesson of penny-for-Nasa. The space agency hasn’t contributed to Washington’s budget problem. By rights Nasa shouldn’t be part of Washington’s fix.

Of course logic has little to do with politics. Nasa won’t escape the knife as Congress cuts defense and discretionary programs. The question will be how Congress and the next President make their cuts. A disciplined approach would cancel some missions to fully fund others. Nasa would do fewer things, but it would do them well.

Of course bravery has even less to do with politics than logic. Washington will continue to kick the Nasa can down the road.