In the spring of 2013, Congress cut the United States’ federal budget by about $1.2 trillion by implementing a “budget sequester.” The sequester butchered the budgets of federally funded agencies, such as NASA. NASA’s budget was sliced by about $1.2 billion, which caused the agency to immediately suspend all outreach and educational programs in an effort to save future space missions. NASA was in peril and the future of space exploration looked bleak.
However, at the start of 2014, NASA received relieving news that its budget would be increased by $800 million. While it is relieving to know NASA’s funding will be supported this year, it is important to realize the unwarranted economic pressure put on NASA and the federal government’s misordering of national priorities. Yes, the increased funding is welcomed news, but compared to NASA’s height in the 1960s, this year’s budget is a fraction of what it once was. Today, NASA receives about 0.48 percent of the total U.S. budget, while in the mid-1960s, the agency received over 5 percent. Although NASA’s budget was given a slight increase this year, the funds as a percentage of total governmental expenditures has plummeted. To understand the gravity of this issue one must first understand why NASA faded out of the national spotlight and why it is important to shift federal priorities in favor of this country’s science agencies.
NASA was established in 1958 and reached its height in the mid-1960s during the Space Race, when the Soviet Union and the United States competed to outmatch one another with technological advancements, the culmination of which occurred when NASA managed to land a manned spacecraft on the moon. With the effort of talented scientists and engineers, NASA managed to astound people all over the globe by landing the first human on the moon. Although possibly more important than the accomplishment is the inspiration the mission ignited in the nation’s people, challenging them to look beyond their doorstep and out into the unknown of the boundless night sky.
However, after NASA made it to the moon before the Soviet Union, federal excitement faded and space exploration was seen as nonvital. The emergence of NASA as a valuable American agency came about in a time of wartime hyper-nationalism, but after the Space Race was won, NASA became practically expendable in the government’s eyes. It seems as though NASA and the ideal of a new frontier among the stars were simply pawns in the game of war, used only to further our country as a superior world superpower. That leaves NASA in its current state, which is in need of both federal and public support to fund an array of new space missions meant to advance the fields of science and inspire the imagination of the public.
Although NASA receives a miniscule amount of federal funding today, the agency continues to make important endeavors that greatly expand our knowledge of the universe. In August 2012, NASA’s rover, Curiosity, landed on the surface of Mars and began to once again pick up public interest for the agency. Since its landing, Curiosity has uncovered dried-up riverbeds, which allowed scientists to confirm that Mars once had flowing streams of water that possessed the potential to support microbial life. While Curiosity did not confirm Martian life on the planet, it has made the idea much more plausible.
The future of NASA’s missions are dependent on the support of federal funding, and with an increased budget, NASA will be able to follow through on missions now in planning. One of the most compelling future missions is the reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which is the closest landmass that may currently sustain life. Strong evidence, such as water vapor venting from Europa’s surface, shows that an ocean of liquid water may be beneath the moon’s icy surface.
The Europa Clipper mission would send a spacecraft to closely investigate Europa and determine whether life could lurk beneath the ice. Scientists assume if life were to exist within Europa, it would look similar to creatures found in the deepest parts of the ocean. Imagine Europa’s core, filled with new, never-before-seen creatures, possibly the first alien life forms ever to be discovered.
In 2009, NASA launched Kepler, a spacecraft with a mission to discover and record planets orbiting stars (exoplanets) beyond our own solar system. A total of 246 planets have been discovered since Kepler’s launch and 12 have been deemed potentially habitable. In just four short years NASA has made breakthroughs in answering one of the most important questions humanity has ever proposed: Is there life elsewhere in the universe? There is a quote by a famous aviator, Antoine de Saint Exupery, that is relevant to the issue of funding space exploration: “If you want to build a ship, do not drum up people to collect wood and do not assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Dreaming of the future, dreaming of worlds beyond our own, that is the true test for our species; to venture out into the universe, bright-eyed and determined to expand what is known and to explore what is not.
Only time will tell whether the federal government will fully realize how significant NASA’s missions are, but even more important than federal interest is public interest. If more of the nation’s citizens keep their eyes on the stars the way adventurers of the past kept their eyes on the horizon, there could be hope for NASA yet. This fight for NASA’s funding is something bigger in the grand scope of human life. We are deemed “intelligent” life, but we tend to strictly concern ourselves with events that directly affect our individual lives. Yet, beyond our homes, that’s where the real adventure is, out in the cosmos, and we must realize that humanity must never forfeit that hunger for knowledge; that unquenchable, undeniable thirst for discovery.