Astronaut John Grusnfeld on the recent Hubble servicing mission. Credit: NASA

8 Ridiculous Things Bigger Than NASA’s Budget

Article Updated: 16 Mar , 2016

Why do we explore? In the days of Magellan, Columbus and da Gama, undoubtedly the average person thought it was foolish to risk lives and spend large amounts of money to find out what was beyond the horizon. Those explorers didn’t find what they expected, but their explorations changed the world.

What drives us to explore and discover is what we don’t know, and the spirit of exploration inspires us to create and invent so that we can go explore and possibly change the world. We don’t know yet exactly what we’ll find if humans ever go to Mars, Europa or beyond, but if we stay in our caves we’ll never find out. Similarly, space probes and telescopes like Hubble, as well as ground-based telescopes have helped us explore remotely and have facilitated the discovery of so many things we didn’t know — and didn’t expect — about our universe.

However, exploration takes money.

The most often-used argument against space exploration is that we should use that money to alleviate problems here on Earth. But that argument fails to realize that NASA doesn’t just pack millions of dollar bills into a rocket and blast them into space. The money NASA uses creates jobs, providing an opportunity for some of the world’s brightest minds to use their talents to, yes, actually benefit humanity. NASA’s exploration spurs inventions that we use everyday, many which save lives and improve the quality of life. Plus, we’re expanding our horizons and feeding our curiosity, while learning so, so much and attempting to answer really big questions about ourselves and the cosmos.

NASA’s annual budget for fiscal year 2009 is $17.2 billion. The proposed budget for FY 2010 would raise it to about $18.7 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but let’s put it in perspective. The US annual budget is almost $3 trillion and NASA’s cut of the US budget is less than 1%, which isn’t big enough to create even a single line on this pie chart.
US Federal Spending.  Credit: Wikipedia
A few other things to put NASA’s budget in perspective:

Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin mentioned recently that US consumers spend more on pizza ($27 billion) than NASA’s budget. (Head nod to Ian O’Neill)

Miles O’Brien recently brought it to our attention that the amount of money Bernie Maddof scammed with his Ponzi scheme ($50 billion) is way bigger than NASA’s budget.

Americans spend a lot of money on some pretty ridiculous things. Returning to that oft-used phrase about spending the money used in space to solve the problems on Earth, consider this: *

Annually, Americans spend about $88.8 billion on tobacco products and another $97 billion on alcohol. $313 billion is spent each year in America for treatment of tobacco and alcohol related medical problems.

Likewise, people in the US spend about $64 billion on illegal drugs, and $114.2 billion for health-related care of drug use.

Americans also spend $586.5 billion a year on gambling.

It’s possible we could give up some other things to help alleviate the problems in our country without having to give up the spirit of exploration.

*the numbers used here are from various years, depending on what was readily available, but range from the years 2000 and 2008.


22 Responses

  1. Stellare says:

    Just a comment on your statement:

    “The most often-used argument against space exploration is that we should use that money to alleviate problems here on Earth.”

    In fact the space programs include Earth observation programs that DO in fact alleviate problems here on Earth. In fact the first science programs in NASA was dedicated to geodesy, one of the Earth sciences. 🙂

    Earth observation from space saves lives, nothing less. 🙂

  2. Jorge says:

    Cool article, and yes, very useful to put some misguided minds to rest regarding the “wastefulness” of space spendings.

    A few more things to consider, dealing with the historical part of the post and all those Portuguese explorers (well, Columbus’ Portuguese origin is highly debatable, but I’ll pull the coal to my sardine (I guess the context is just right to use a portuguese saying), if you don’t mind ;)): The mortality rate in those explorations was just plain huge. In those travels that lasted for years, in fragile and rather small ships, without a properly balanced diet and no real medical care, the mortality rates were as high as 50%. A man that went aboard one of those ships knew beforehand he was just as likely to come back as to perish very, very far away from home.

    And yet then went anyway. Why? Because those who came back, for the most part, returned rich.

    You see, except for Columbus who, despite not finding what he was looking for did find something just as valuable, those other two did find what they were looking for. Vasco da Gama found the maritime path to India he was after (starting the decandence of the islamic civilization in the process, by killing its monopoly on spice trade), and Magellan, despite having been killed before the end of his journey did find a passage to the Pacific which opened way to his aim of circumnavigating the planet. And he did manage to return to known waters before dying. And what they found was not only the sheer pleasure of exploration and discovery, but also riches, a plentiful of riches. New territories to trade with and perhaps claim for their king. The urge of discovery might have been enough were they as safe as our astronauts are today, but to put everything on the line, as they did back then, it’s just not enough.

  3. Great additions to the arguments pro-space exploration, Stellare and Jorge — thanks!

  4. mrbill says:

    I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t jump in and play devil’s advocate. The reason the laymen feels that the NASA’s budget is cheating them of their tax dollars is entirely the fault of the institution’s public relations. People feel excluded from the breathtaking science going on in space on the planet because they cannot interact in a reciprocal manner. It would seem to the laymen that the NASA is entirely obsessed with keeping a paltry dozen people in space to the exclusion of the other 300 million Americans actaully supporting them.
    The NASA has portrayed its history as a series of spectacular milestones often focusing around photogenic rocket launches and planet/satellite imaging. By emphasizing the sensational, the real science taking place is trivialized. Televising proceeding 24/7 hasn’t helped in the least, in fact starting NASA TV has only worsened the divide by further commercializing the science, as anyone can now ‘tune in’ and immediately feel excluded when they see astronauts floating around or whatever.
    Lastly, keeping in mind the budget of the other major US exploratory agency, the NOAA, the NASA is clearly spoiled silly- and completely out of proportion with the utility of the respective institutions.

  5. Spoodle58 says:

    Great article,

    I agree that it is a shame that the people across the water don’t know how much the U.S. government spends on NASA, and a bigger shame that they don’t know it directly benefits them.

  6. Jess says:

    Nancy Atkinson: *the numbers used here are from various years, depending on what was readily available, but range from the years 2000 and 2008.

    If anything, these numbers have -increased- in the past few years, lending more weight to their part in the article. ;o

  7. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    It’s quite possible that one can recoup the investment on climate research alone (so I don’t get the NOAA discussion). It could have happened with the ozone problem, the first environmental catastrophe diverted (now verified by models AFAIU); but I’m not sure how much was done by balloons and planes and how much was satellite survey.

    GPS is a more mundane application, but for example Burj Dubai wouldn’t be possible without it. (Now I just read about a LIDAR system which can handle precision built structures over 500 m, BD is IIRC currently 818 m (17 Jan), but that system was developed by, of all things, NASA.)

    The standard cosmology wouldn’t be possible without Hubble (well) and WMAP, so NASA is responsible for answering questions that humanity have asked for millenniums (how did the universe develop, how does it look now, how will it develop).

    These new possibilities are mostly priceless.

  8. Maxwell says:


    NOAA without services pioneered and maintained by NASA would still be a bunch of guys running around with barometers and paper journals trying to predict the rain.
    While they may not offer their services direct to the consumer that doenst make it any less valuable an agency.

    The NASA budget is pathetic compared to projects that accomplish far less for ten times the price.
    The problem with NASA is its obvious expenditure of money has been trumpted by the media without an explaination to these readers of how little money we’ve actually spent.
    Politicians are then caught in the crossroads of wanting to “save” money while not wanting to be known as the men who killed the US space program.

    I believe our individual future in space sits with them, unfortunately. Unless voters become more adamant about spaceflight, to the point of witholding votes over it, you wont see any real action.

  9. Jorge says:

    Maxwell, I think competition will do it. When americans see that we, in Europe, or the russians or the chinese, or whoever else, are doing stuff they can’t do anymore, they’ll wake up to the importance of properly funding NASA.

    It might even start quite quickly, in a couple of years, when America looses independent access to space for its astronauts.

  10. Maxwell says:

    I’m fearful about that, Jorge.

    Personally I believe the reason the shuttle has survived all these decades is due to the fact that no senator wanted to be known as the guy who killed the American spaceflight program.
    Not out of any particular interest in spaceflight itself, but just the embarrassment of losing this ability.
    That is why the “gap” has become so big a problem that it overshadows our future destinations of the moon and mars.

    Yes in theory other nations going to the moon is just the shock to the system we need.
    If that was the case tho, a massive investment towards COTS-D and a more ambitious moon program should have been the announcement we got with Bolden’s nomination. A push to compete with everyone else.

    Instead we get talk of outsourcing launches to China, scaling back constellation, culling unmanned missions and keeping the shuttle on indefinite life support.

    Maybe your right and we simply have to see events unfold for the true “sputnik” effect… but by then we’ll be a decade behind the 8ball.

  11. Astrofiend says:

    All I can summon is: Why? Why don’t people get excited about this stuff? I’m at a loss.

    Tobacco products – people will happily spend more money on committing slow painful suicide by self inflicting one or more of the literally hundreds of horrible diseases that smoking has been directly linked to than they would on uncovering the wonder of the universe. I don;t get it – what a sad predicament we humans find ourselves in.

    God help us (if he exists), because we sure as hell seem incapable of making prudent choices ourselves…

  12. HeadAroundU says:

    So, we shouldn’t treat tobacco and alcohol medical problems?

    Are you gonna tell people to stop gambling and doing drugs?

    Ridiculous arguments. It’s the time we live in. Take it as a fact and stop crying. Everybody’s not as noble as scientists or space explorers.

    You should probably start crying about Bush’s war in Iraq and put him into jail. So much money spent there. I’m not a hypocryte on here because a president is supposed to be responsible, not like common people doing drugs.

  13. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    “Ridiculous arguments.”

    Sizing up effects is a common method in science. Yes, you can “tell people to stop gambling” by increasing taxes (for space) – less money for gambling then.

  14. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    “So, we shouldn’t treat tobacco and alcohol medical problems?”

    I believe the argument was just that, people prefer to spend money on drugs instead of space (and drug treatments).

    “Are you gonna tell people to stop gambling and doing drugs?”

    If the solution involves taxation, yes – less money for gambling and drugs.

  15. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Oops. Sorry about the twofer. (Durn tabs. 🙂 )

  16. HeadAroundU says:

    No, no, no. If people want to gamble, nobody is gonna stop that busines. None politician is that dumb.

  17. rev. byron frimstone says:

    I could only think of 2 ridiculous things bigger than NASA’s budget: these NUTS.

  18. star-grazer west coast says:

    rev. byron frimstone Says
    Vat are the 2 ridiculous things bigger than
    Nasa’s budget- what nuts? What may seem
    crazy to one person may be a livilihood for another!!!!!

  19. star-grazer west coast says:

    Unfortunately, the recession the US has may be the straw that broke the back of American thinking of being excited about space exploration and being first to do things. It may appear I am a pessimist, however, many Americans are finally realizing the deficit spending has caught up with our way of thinking about the future and far more cautionary spending and earnings are the only way to go, if so and so country wants to do this in space, Americans in general may no longer care. As far as what people will think are truly crazy spending, humans have been doing crazy things since the beginning of the human race!!!!!!! Humans will not change!!!! To attempt to stop stupid spending will be an act of civil war or will cause civil war!!!!!!! What is worst?!?!?

  20. RUF says:

    I heard that American women spent more on cosmetics than the US spent on the Apollo Program. Wow….

  21. Maxwell says:

    I believe the author is trying to point out that we’ve become gunshy on space programs, and that it has little to do with the cost. The recession is just a political exceuse for politicians to kill competing agendas.

    The problem with Apollo was most people thought “Gee wiz, thats EXPENSIVE!” when, in fact, it was not. Vaun Brauns proposals were fairly affordable when put in perspective. It also had a bigger payout than the military and social programs which we sink our cash into.

    To think if we had followed down his path we would have several hundred people living on the moon and a few dozen on mars by now… How the hell would a communist nation argue against that?
    Why would a corporation want to do business with anyone but the US?

    Today GM is about to walk away with over three times what NASA gets for spaceflight. The return on this investment will be more cars, just like every other nations cars.

    I don’t think anyone is willing to give up smoking or drinking for the space program. But it does put the cost into perspective.
    We can afford to develop space for a pittance compared to what we spend doing frivilous things.

    Its a matter of keeping space in perspective.

  22. Cool! The intangible benefits of space exploration is there.

Comments are closed.