NASA’s iconic space shuttle, Discovery, was given a suitably spectacular farewell flight over Washington DC this week to signal the veteran crafts’ retirement.
Discovery completed an astonishing 39 space expeditions – more than any other NASA spacecraft. Its last airborne journey saw it cut through a clear Tuesday morning sky, riding atop a modified 747, and circling above such landmarks as the White House rose garden and Washington Monument.
Discovery’s decommissioning also represents the end of an era, bringing a symbolic close to NASA’s 30-year-long space shuttle program. The program, officially abandoned last year, leaves America bereft of the ability to launch humans into space for the first time since 1981.
These events got us thinking about America’s decorated history of space exploration, and then, worldwide interplanetary expeditions. To investigate, understand and analyze outer-atmospheric air travel, we inevitably turned to data visualization.
Data providers: US Office of Management and Budget
NASA’s annual budget, 1958 – 2011
NASA has been budgeted a total of $526.18 billion US dollars, an average of $9.7 billion per year, between 1958 (when it launched) and 2011.
The total funds allocated to NASA and its operations clearly spiked around the space race of the 60s, peaking at 4.41% of America’s total Federal Budget in 1966 as the US, spurred by the Soviet Union’s Luna 2 mission of 1959, prepared to put man on the Moon in 1969.
NASA’s 2003 budget compared to miscellaneous spending by US consumers
Many people claim that the US spends too much on space exploration and related activities. Many suggest that these funds could, and should, be repurposed to nobler, more practical, causes such as curing disease or fighting poverty in the third world. The merit of this argument is hard to ignore.
But, let’s put NASA’s budget in context.
According to a November 2003 report by Barna Research Group, Americans spent for the financial year 2002/2003:
- $586.5 billion on gambling;
- $80 billion on illegal drugs;
- $58 billion on alcohol;
- $31 billion on tobacco products;
- $ 224 billion to eat out;
- $191 billion on personal water craft;
- $67 billion on frozen dinners;
- $25 billion on gardening;
- $22.1 billion on hunting, and;
- $15 billion on junk food snacks
By comparison, NASA’s 2003 budget was 14.6 billion. Placed in this context, it’s difficult to label those allocated funds as extravagant, isn’t it?
Annual country/region space agency budgets (USD, 2011)
But how does America’s space spending stack-up against the rest of the world? Well, according to last year’s The Space Report 2011 and the official budgetary notes of the globe’s national space agencies, America’s total outlay far outweighs that of any other nation or region.
NASA’s total budget for 2011 was $18,488 million, more than triple that of the European Space Agency ($5,430 million) and almost five times that of Russia’s ($3,800 million).
Space agency budget allocation as a percentage of GDP (select countries, 2011)
Again, in terms of annual space agency funding as percentage of GDP, America clearly dominates – even compared to five of the world’s heaviest space spenders.
In 2011, America assigned 0.14% of GDP to NASA’s budget – seven times greater than China’s commitment to its National Space Administration (0.02% of GDP), and more than twice that of closest rival Russia (0.06%).
Per capita space agency budget allocation (select countries, 2011)
Opponents to national space programs also often argue that the reallocation of resources could boost national development endeavors and social services, such as education, healthcare and medical research. So, how much money could America, and its closest space race rivals, redistribute per person?
Once more, America is heads, shoulders, feet and many kilometers of stratosphere above its competition – if space exploration is still considered a competition – dedicating $54 dollars per person to NASA’s initiatives in 2011.
Japan had the second highest capital commitment per person in 2011 at $18 a head, while India invested just 82 cents per capita.
So, as America and NASA move into a new phase of unmanned space exploration, is it possible to establish whether it’s all been financially worthwhile? Fiscal Return On Investment (ROI) is notoriously hard to prove; especially given the intangible outcomes of outer space adventure. America made history by putting man on the Moon. Does that achievement justify expenditure and deliver ROI? What do you think?