Yager: Lack of support for scientific exploration reveals political shortsightedness

How much would you pay for the universe? Admiral Ackbar would call this question a trap, but it was a serious question posed on March 7 by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Some would say that the federal government spends too much money on NASA. Those people, however, are fools. If anything, we must boost NASA’s budget and reap the societal and economic benefits.

On Sunday April 15, President Barack Obama announced a shift in NASA’s operations. His plan was to cancel the next line of rockets, retire the shuttle program and stop all research into traveling outside of low Earth orbit for the next 20 years. 20 years. No moon, no Mars, no advancement.

The interesting part is that the running budget for NASA is relatively small. The 2011 budget for NASA was $18.4 billion. I’ll admit that this is by no means chump change. There are many, however, that think that the budget is too big. In fact, Americans in a 1997 poll estimated that NASA received 20 percent of the yearly federal budget. Now let’s look past the typical fear, uncertainty and doubt that conservative media outlets such as FOX News exude, and use math.

First, note that the NASA budget has increased a little over $4 billion from 1997 to 2011. The 2011 federal budget was $3.36 trillion. This means that the International Space Station, the shuttles, the 18,000 direct employees and the countless employees of contractors cost 0.54 percent of the federal budget. The whole kit and caboodle is half a penny on the tax dollar.

I, for one, would gladly double that to one whole penny purely for the chance to push the boundaries of scientific exploration. The benefits of NASA, however, are more than just scientific advancement.

On the economics side, NASA’s spinoff technologies and contracts have had a profound impact. A 1989 study conducted by Chapman Research followed 259 of NASA’s 30,000 non-space technologies from 1976 to 1984. This study showed that the 1 percent studied had created $21.6 billion in revenue and 352,000 jobs for the companies selling products based on technologies commissioned by NASA.

If this is extrapolated, the progress funded and utilized by NASA is responsible for hundreds of billions of dollars of profit for American companies. In addition, the companies that made the profits off of NASA’s spinoff technologies paid $355 million in federal corporate income taxes within the eight-year period. Once again, the extrapolation of this information makes a clear case for NASA paying for itself with its advancements in science and technology.

NASA has also made its way into our culture. In the aftermath of the Apollo program, Americans were looking toward the future as a land of promise, where advanced technology could improve our lives for the better. Walt Disney created Tomorrowland in his theme parks, and popular culture was looking at the scientific and technologies of the future. These visions of the future then created a generation of scientists, engineers and technologists that have created the technologies of today.

If it only costs penny per tax dollar for the universe, scientific understanding and a prospering nation, then why would we want to sell the future short?