Funding & Politics

NASA Annual Spending

NASA Annual Spending

It is proposed that the US dedicate .27% of its GDP each year to the NASA Enterprise program. The Enterprise program includes the building one new USS Enterprise spaceship per generation, that is, every 33 year. To get off to a fast start, the first ship, the Gen1 ship, will be built on an accelerated schedule of 20 years.

To get some sense of what spending .27% of the GDP each year will mean, consider that between 1963 and 1972, during the Apollo era, the US spent on average .50% of GDP per year as shown in the center column in the table to the right. This is about double the level of spending proposed for funding the Enterprise program.

.27% of GDP will be about $40 billion for the year 2012. $40 billion is certainly a lot of money to spend – but it’s not that much when you consider that the federal budget in 2012 is $3700 billion ($3.7 Trillion). $40 billion seems like pocket change from the perspective of federal spending. $40 billion is 1.1% of the 2012 federal budget. This compares to an average of 2.8% of the federal budget which was spent each year on NASA between 1963 and 1972 as shown in the rightmost column in the table above.

If the Enterprise program had started in 2010, and followed a twenty year development schedule, the table below shows the spending each year for the Enterprise. It can be seen that as the economy grows each year that more money becomes available when holding the amount allocated to the Enterprise program constant at .27% of GDP. It can also be seen that the average over the twenty years is $50 billion per year spent on the Enterprise program.

USS Enterprise Funding 20 years v4

Regarding spending $40 billion in a year on the Enterprise, for example in 2012, Congress can hick-up and spend $40 billion. Consider $40 billion per year in comparison to the top five areas of federal spending in 2012:

  • $761 billion  – Social Security
  • $468 billion  – Medicare
  • $269 billion  – Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program
  • $553 billion  – Department of Defense
  • $598 billion  – Unemployment/Welfare/Other mandatory spending

It may be tempting to some to declare that we should just divert $8 billion per year away from each item above to fund the Enterprise program. However, four out of the five items above are social programs, and it should be kept in mind that it’s very difficult to cut social programs. Furthermore, it’s not wise to pit new spending on a space program against spending on major social programs. Opponents of the spending cuts to social programs would quickly paint the Enterprise program in a negative light. Also, all but defense spending in the list of items above are classified as “mandatory spending”. This means that the spending is automatic each year unless Congress changes the laws that mandate this spending.

So let’s say that cutting major social programs is off limits when it comes to finding funds for the Enterprise program. That seems politically smart. Instead we can do one of three options. “A”, we can cut spending in the budget where spending is not mandatory and not for major social programs. “B”, we can only raise taxes via the income tax. Or “C”, we can do a combination of cutting spending and raising taxes.

So let’s see what the three plans might look like in practice. Keep in mind that a total of $40 billion must be found.

Plan A: Cut spending from the top 8 “discretionary” spending programs to fund the Enterprise program:

  • Dept. of Defense:  $10 billion (from $552 billion to $542 billion/year)
  • Overseas Contingency Operations: $ 8 billion (from $126.3 billion to $118.3)
  • Dept. of Health and Human Services: $5 billion (from $79.9 billion to $74.9 billion)
  • Dept. of Education:  $5 billion (from $77 billion/year to $72 billion/year)
  • Dept. of Housing & Urban Development – $4 billion (from $49.8 billion to $45.8 billion)
  • Dept. of Energy: $4 billion (from $30 billion/year to $26 billion/year)
  • Dept. of Agriculture: $2 billion (from $23.8 billion to $21.8 billion)
  • Dept. of Labor: $2 billion (from $12.8 billion to $10.8 billion)

Plan B:  Slightly increase the income tax rates as needed to obtain $40 billion.

Plan C:  Combo of Plans A and B (50% cuts and 50% in new taxes)

  • Cut the tax rate increases for Plan B by a factor of 2.
  • Reduce all spending cuts shown for plan A by a factor of 2. The revised cuts are then:
  • Dept. of Defense:  $5 billion (from $552 billion to $547 billion/year)
  • Overseas Contingency Operations: $ 4 billion (from $126.3 billion to $122.3)
  • Dept. of Health and Human Services: $2.5 billion (from $79.9 billion to $77.4 billion)
  • Dept. of Education:  $2.5 billion (from $77 billion/year to $74.5 billion/year)
  • Dept. of Housing & Urban Development – $2 billion (from $49.8 billion to $47.8 billion)
  • Dept. of Energy: $2 billion (from $30 billion/year to $28 billion/year)
  • Dept. of Agriculture: $1 billion (from $23.8 billion to $22.8 billion)
  • Dept. of Labor: $1 billion (from $12.8 billion to $11.8 billion)

So which plan is best? Personally, I like plan C because I think it is the most sellable.  It spreads the pain around most broadly. The cuts to areas of discretionary spending are not large, and the tax increases will be very small. These changes to spending and taxes will not sink the republic. In fact, these will barely be noticed. It’s amazing that a program as fantastic as the building a fleet of USS Enterprise spaceships can be done with so little impact. We are more affluent than we know.

However the funding is obtained, it is conceivable that this could happen. Mainly what would be needed is a champion in Washington DC, likely someone running for president or someone who is already president. I suppose leadership in Congress could emerge to champion this instead, but the president has the best bully pulpit to promote the idea of establishing the Enterprise program and then getting on with developing the Gen1 ship. Will such leadership emerge? It depends entirely on whether the idea of building the Gen1 Enterprise catches on with space enthusiasts.

If grass roots interest grows enough regarding the idea of building the Gen1 USS Enterprise – that would in time get the attention of some national politicians. And perhaps NASA will become interested on its own, enough at first to proactively fund an initial study of the idea of building the first Enterprise.

Finally, we should be clear about one more thing. No spending should be cut from NASA’s existing budget. In another words, we don’t want to raid money that NASA gets to fund development of the Enterprise. NASA is already underfunded. NASA spending today is only .12% of GDP, compared to .50% of GDP during the Apollo era. At .12% of GDP, NASA’s budget is just $18 billion per year out of a $3700 billion federal budget! So let the non-Enterprise division of NASA focus on science and robotic missions around the solar system rather than diverting money away from those noble projects to the Enterprise program.

This does not mean that there will be no collaboration between the two NASA divisions. They can jointly develop the Universal Lander, for example. The Enterprise will also carry many, many robotic probes to send down to Mars, Venus, and other places while the Enterprise is sent on missions. These may well be developed by the non-Enterprise division of NASA.