NASA’s budget … as far as Americans think

By Phil Plait | November 21, 2007 11:00 am

I know that a lot of people have a hard time grasping large numbers. Our puny brains, so recently evolved, don’t have a concrete example of a million, or a billion. We have a hard time past about 150!

So it doesn’t surprise me that the U.S. budget is difficult to comprehend, totaling $2.7 trillion. Still, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that the average American thinks that NASA gets 1/4 of the U.S. total budget:

Americans in general have no idea what NASA’s "cost" is. In fact, most members of the public have no idea how much any government agency’s budget is. What we do know — and have recently documented — is that the public perception of NASA’s budget is grossly inflated relative to actual dollars. In a just-completed study, we asked respondents what percentage of the national budget is allocated to NASA … NASA’s allocation, on average, was estimated to be approximately 24% of the national budget (the NASA allocation in 2007 was approximately 0.58% of the budget.)

A lot of people think NASA is a waste of time and money, and maybe this is why; they have a grossly overinflated idea of how much NASA spends. When NASA loses a $150 million probe, that’s a lot of real money, but hardly a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend as a nation (and remember, we spend $11 million per hour in Iraq).

I’ve written about this before, on what NASA does with its paltry percentage. NASA faces a clear issue here: they do an incredible amount of work and exploration with a small amount of money. People think that they don’t do very much at all and spend vast amounts of money. All NASA needs to do is educate the public on their real budget. Once it’s put into perspective, really made clear, I bet public support for NASA would go way up.

To be sure, a huge amount of NASA’s budget is wasted (I am not a big supporter of the space station or the Shuttle because of cost and mission, though I do not deny how cool they are), and that is a priority. But at the same time, if they could get the public to truly understand how little of the national budget they get, they might be able to actually get them to rally behind a real project, like getting back to the Moon, or building even better probes to the planets, moon, comets, and asteroids in our solar system — not to mention building bigger and more sensitive telescopes that can see the Universe across the electromagnetic spectrum.

I remember hearing a talk by a Hubble scientist years ago, and he said that if you download two or three Hubble images and use them to decorate your office or as a desktop wallpaper, you’ve gotten your money’s worth out of the telescope. I think he made a really good point. Exploration, science, understanding, beauty: the price on these is small, and it’s even smaller than most people think!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA

Comments (74)

  1. Jeremy

    24% of the national budget. Wow that’s more then I thought. I wish it was more!

  2. Quiet_Desperation

    And then you have the “we should solve all the problems on Earth first” contingent who don’t really care what the percentage is.

    I have bad news.

    We are NEVER going to solve the human problems in the world because of the mankind’s strong tendency toward utter jackassery. Without some sort of Slaver telepathy amplification helmet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrint), you are never going to fix people’s broken behaviors.

    But, please, keep throwing more money at the problems and wondering why it didn’t work.

  3. Nemo

    QD: Personally, as alien technologies for fixing broken behaviors go, I prefer talsit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eon_%28novel%29). No tyranny, just the power of clear thinking.

  4. Levi

    How much would you be willing to bet the Chinese will make it to the moon before we go back? I fear something like that is the only sort of thing that would rile the American public up into pressuring the government to expand NASA’s budget. Frankly, most people don’t care about Mars rovers or covering the whole electromagnetic spectrum with space telescopes, but China landing a man on the moon, that’s something the Average Joe would pay attention to.

  5. Sir Struggle

    I still haven’t figured out why people think the government is not capable of multitasking. If we were to completely remove NASA’s budget for one year and allocate it to Iraq, or whatever, it would make absolutely ZERO difference, except that the thousands that work for NASA would be jobless. In my opinion, you lose an argument as soon as you utter the words, “Don’t we have more important things to worry about?” The answer is yes, but what do you expect a bunch of Scientists and Engineers to do about homelessness? If they wanted to fix that they wouldn’t be scientists and engineers. Why don’t you quit YOUR job and work on that (goodness I’m getting riled up.) People as a group can be so stupid and selfish sometimes.

  6. Camby

    “Our puny brains, so recently evolved, don’t have a concrete example of a million, or a billion. We have a hard time past about 150!”

    A concrete example I use for keeping the million-billion-trillion scale at hand:

    It takes only 11 1/2 days for one million seconds to pass.
    Nearly 32 years for one billion seconds…
    And nearly 32,000 years for one trillion seconds to pass us by.

    How large a number is one trillion? The Neanderthals disappeared from Earth about one trillion seconds ago.

    I lifted this (paraphrased) from the book by John Allen Paulos, “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences”

  7. Sir Struggle

    I meant Zero difference to Iraq or whatever. I re-read my comment above and saw how it could be misinterpreted. I was in rant mode and typing really fast.

  8. Stripe

    Can you imagine what NASA could have done with the money Bush has spent on Iraq?

  9. Sir Struggle

    While I think money spent on NASA is money well spent, and they should get a lot more than they currently get, the Iraq dollars would be a little too much money. Sometimes, having a tight budget is actually helpful. It keeps everyone’s heads pointed in the same direction.

  10. Every country has this in one form or another. Canadians thing we short shrift our health care system and yet health care is, hands down, the largest single expense (20-25%) out of all tax dollars (~$225 billion + provincial budgets) that we spend.

    But if you ask Canadians, they say it’s underfunded.

  11. On the flip side, our own space program is considered expensive, and wasteful of money. Our soldiers, despite recent budget increases, still make do with equipment that is, in many cases, older than the soldiers who use it. Research and development is being strangled…

    … all to have more money for underfunded health care, because 50 billion dollars a year isn’t good enough.

  12. My apologies for the multiple posts. I am on a wireless mouse and the cell phone which is sitting too close, evidently, interferes with the mouse when an email comes in.

  13. Dom

    Let’s try and break it down into terms the average person could understand more readily.

    If the median household income is $48,000, 0.58% of that is $278.40.

    What can we tell people that costs $278.40 and will seem insignificant? Unfortunately this might seem like a fairly substantial sum of money to some people.

    You could not fly from NY to California for the same percentage of budget that we are supposed to fly to the moon. Maybe that tells people something.

  14. Ken B

    24 percent? Wow! Can you imagine what research could be done with more than half a trillion dollars? You could triple everyone’s salary, triple the number of people working for them, and still have more than thirty years worth of today’s annual budget left for equipment. We could be on the moon next week! (What? You mean that doubling the funds doesn’t cut the time in half?)

  15. Pity the full results of that study aren’t available yet. What’s the betting that when you add up the perceived percentages, the total is way over 100%? NASA: 24%; Defense: 33%; Medicare: 50%; Homeland Security: 10%; Education: 15%… and so on. And if you were to point that out, people would say “So? Why should they add up to 100? Everyone knows we are overtaxed.”

  16. Ken B

    Don:
    > If the median household income is $48,000, 0.58% of that is $278.40.
    >
    > What can we tell people that costs $278.40 and will seem insignificant?

    Don’t base your example on gross income — base it on taxes. (After all, isn’t it their taxes which they feel are “wasted” on NASA?)

    Assuming a 25% tax bracket, on $48,000 that’s less than $70. (And $48K is probably lower than 25%.) That’s less than one small coffee at Starbucks every other week.

  17. > Slaver telepathy amplification helmet

    Suicide Night seems a strangely appealing concept…

  18. DLC

    So, we could double NASA’s budget and not feel the pinch.
    But, GWB just vetoed a 1 billion increase in the budget for science grants. Maybe NIS and NASA need thier own Ebay Stores for
    Charity Auctions ? Not sure how much they’d get out of it, but a half mil or so a year would at least buy office supplies and coffee.

  19. Sir Struggle

    They could eBay a few moon rocks, that’d fetch a boatload o’ cash.

  20. What can we tell people that costs $278.40 and will seem insignificant?

    that’s less than the cost of fixing a broken window.

  21. Dan

    Response to “Stripe” above:

    Stripe said: “Can you imagine what NASA could have done with the money Bush has spent on Iraq?”

    … you’d have you flying car by now!

  22. Melusine

    Maybe people should look at pie charts of the budget more often. Something visual often works best for people.

    Science and technology is just a tiny sliver of the pie.

  23. Sergeant Zim

    @ Ken B: (What? You mean that doubling the funds doesn’t cut the time in half?)

    Reminds me of a quote by Werhner von Braun, in the early days of the Space Race. He was talking about the tendency of Government the expect instant results if they only throw more money at the problem. He said:

    “Crash programs fail because they are based on the theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month.”

  24. I posted a column about the NASA budget a while back:

    http://www.kansascurmudgeon.com/?p=89

    The whole thing is just a travesty. Thanks for this column; I had not a clue before it that most citizens thought that the NASA budget was 1/4 of the Federal budget. That’s appalling!

  25. Peter

    I don’t happen to be of the mindset that is anti-NASA or science, but people with a libertarian bent would probably argue that even $240 a person is money they’d rather keep for themselves. The same people who can’t point to where the soldier kid from down the street got sent on a globe probably can’t point in the sky to where their pretty Hubble desktop picture came from, either.

    The relativity comparison to the staggering waste of money that is the Iraq debacle isn’t a very compelling sales pitch. That gets tossed around a lot to justify the expense of whatever someone’s pet cause or program is but unless the person you’re trying to sway thinks radioastronomy or whatever is worthwhile to begin with, they’re probably not going to be won over by the idea that it costs only a fraction of what today’s shipment of bodybags to Iraq cost taxpayers.

  26. Mick

    Phil wrote:
    —————————
    “Our puny brains, so recently evolved, don’t have a concrete example of a million, or a billion. We have a hard time past about 150!”
    —————————

    There is a good way of visualising a million and a billion. Picture a meter rule divided into millimetres, there are 1,000 of them in a meter and both the meter and millimeter are on a comfortable scale for us to compare and have a feel for. Now imagine a 1 meter square divided into a 1mm grid, there are a million 1 mm squares in that 1 meter square (1,000×1,000). Now extrude that square to make a 1 meter cube, it contains a billion 1 mm cubes (1,000×1,000×1,000). Helps me, anyway.

  27. Sergeant Zim

    Dr. BA was discussing the public perception of NASA’s budget a few months ago. He gave the analogy of an almost-full hard drive on your desktop computer (we’ve all been there). The analogy is, if your hard drive is almost full, do you delete a 15kb text file, or do you delete a 950mb first-person shooter game?

  28. LS

    When people I know gripe about NASA’s budget, I point out the percentage — knew it was less than 1, didn’t have the exact figure, thanks! — but I also point to Spirit and Opportunity. “Look, NASA does some really good work. The rovers meant to last through a three-month mission as still working three YEARS later. You don’t think they deserve a bit of cash??” Most people don’t know about NASA’s successes — only the failures ever make the mainstream news, because science is “boring” to the MSM.

  29. Abstract Labor

    Actually, given the $2.7 trillion budget (that’s expenditures), of which 0.58% is for NASA, meaning roughly $15.6 billion or so (stop me if I’m going too fast), and the current US population of roughly 300 million, that means NASA costs us about $50 per person.

    More than a bargain, yeah?

    About as much as dinner for two at an ok restaurant (without drinks).

  30. Sir Struggle says: “I still haven’t figured out why people think the government is not capable of multitasking. If we were to completely remove NASA’s budget for one year and allocate it to Iraq, or whatever, it would make absolutely ZERO difference, except that the thousands that work for NASA would be jobless.”

    I make this point myself when challenged, but you can through some “gee whiz” stats on it:

    NASA is the smallest government agency. The largest (the welfare agency, technically called Health and Human Services (HHS)), is more than half of the government all by itself. It spends the equivalent of NASA’s entire annual budget more than twice every day! That will usually give the “fix all of our problems here” types pause.

    And for those of you who think the military is the largest (it’s about 1/3), remember that most of the military budget is spent here on vendors to the military. The plug against Iraq in Phil’s entry shows that the “wasting the money in space” fallacy works in reverse and will trap even thinking people.

    Back on the original point, NASA is not only the smallest agency, it is the only one to provide an actual dividend in terms of technology and education. Most of the research done for military is also (eventually) made available, and, once the direct costs of the manpower are removed, this is most of the remaining budget.

    -Jack

  31. It is much worse among some elements of the population. I have a copy of an evangelist’s newsletter in which he offhandedly remarks that “NASA wastes hundreds of billions a year looking for UFOs,” as though this is simply common knowledge.

    This kind of ignorance is a jaw-dropper to those who know the real numbers, but not really a surprise in terms of American public perception in general.
    I recall reading that the general public also vastly exaggerates the amount spent on food stamps, as well as the percentage of minorities receiving welfare.

    Besides fundamental ignorance, a lot of this distortion could no doubt be blamed on inferences drawn from media and popular culture, especially the tendency to confuse the newsworthy, and therefore exceptional, with the typical.

  32. Not only that, but people tend to think that all NASA missions cost billions of dollars. When NASA loses a $150 million probe, even those who should know better rue the “billions” wasted. I think this is the real reason that the better/faster/cheaper concept is considered a failure.

  33. Mark Martin

    “NASA is the smallest government agency.”

    I guess that depends on what one means by “agency.” The National Science Foundation is currently funded for fiscal year 2007 at 5.91 billion dollars, which is about 0.38 that of NASA. This is not to say that NASA has an overly generous budget.

    In fact, it only serves to further demonstrate how comparatively negligible is public funding of science & engineering research in the U.S. The DOE has for year 2008 a budget of 24.3 billion, which though larger than NASA’s, is still rather paltry given the absolute central role of energy in the health of our civilization. The U.S. Geological Survey is only currently at less than one billion annually. Considering how much service the public receives from each of these entities, the investment in their operations is positively miniscule.

  34. People have a hard time grasping large numbers, but not so hard grasping size ratios between different circles. This graph illustrates the size of NASAs budget quite nicely.

  35. bassmanpete

    A concrete example I use for keeping the million-billion-trillion scale at hand:

    It takes only 11 1/2 days for one million seconds to pass.
    Nearly 32 years for one billion seconds…
    And nearly 32,000 years for one trillion seconds to pass us by.

    Or, if you take Bill Gates’ net worth (currently estimated to be about $30B) and spent a million dollars a day, it would take about 82 years to get through it. But of course, even at that rate of spending the interest being earned, if only at 5%, would mean that more was coming in than going out!

  36. Rob

    Two things:

    1. The science and tech portion of that pie chart doesn’t classify as science spending items that fall under other categories (e.g., defense or health research).
    2. NASA is nowhere near the smallest government agency. Off the top of my head I can come up with CPSC (budget less than $100 million, but I don’t recall exactly what) and NCUA (around $100 million) but there are any number of tiny agencies (is the Tea Board still around?).

  37. Sergeant Zim

    Ad Hominid, do you have a link to that evangelist’s website? I’d love to read his thoughts on the budget, as well as other ‘stuff’

  38. Ginger Yellow

    “Pity the full results of that study aren’t available yet. What’s the betting that when you add up the perceived percentages, the total is way over 100%? ”

    My thoughts exactly. I suspect if you asked about each agency over a period of time, you’d get percentages in the thousands. It’s well known that people by and large have absolutely no clue about government budgets. I’m still digging for the link, but there was a survey a decade or so back in which people thought international aid was the largest single expenditure and defence one of the smallest.

  39. Ginger Yellow

    I think this is the one. It’s from Kaiser and Harvard in 1995.

    Table 16: Americans’ Views Of The Two Largest Areas Of Federal Government Spending

    Views of American Adults (from a list of six programs)

    % selecting area as one of two of the largest areas of federal spending

    Foreign aid 41%

    Welfare 40%

    Interest on the federal debt 40%

    Defense 37% *
    Social Security 14% *
    Health 8%

    Source: Kaiser/Harvard Program on the Public and Health/Social Policy Survey, January 1995

    *Actual largest areas of FY 1993 federal budget: defense (21%) and Social Security (21%).

  40. Dr. BA was discussing the public perception of NASA’s budget a few months ago. He gave the analogy of an almost-full hard drive on your desktop computer (we’ve all been there). The analogy is, if your hard drive is almost full, do you delete a 15kb text file, or do you delete a 950mb first-person shooter game?

    Neither. You go buy a new 700 GB and run it along side :)

    Hard drives are becoming so cheap, I’m amazed there even is a delete command still.

  41. So basically every 13.64 hours (13.6363…) the US wastes the same amount of money that could be spent on learning about the universe on a war?

  42. Mark Martin

    Karl,

    Not only could that same money be used for basic science, but it could also be used to fund the hell out of developing alternate energy sources, making war even less likely in the future.

  43. Jim Brother

    …the ‘bad’ info is here — the deficit is $9 trillion — that’s the most important stat!

  44. Patmos David

    Anything > n=2 when used in any a, b, (c) or x, y, (z) Math Calculations is based on Non-Proven Theorems or Theory. When ever you use “Thune” or “Jocabian” Math in Calculations or to prove a Theorem it is still a Theory. I have been doing my own thing since I was 10 1/2 and when ever I came accross a Conjecture or what I always call; ” The Cross Roads”. I would stop and THINK, not dream up a Theory to amuze myself and to educate millions with Fantasy Math. I have kept Math Pure and Just like my Father before me. We are ONE now and all you PHDed Phillies could just set there amuzed to death. 2008, 2010, 2012 or beyond is a proven fact of a future date. If you tell me you know the future, than go amuze yourself playing the lottery. I don’t have much energy left to install any other proofs. I could till you that I have gone with The ONE way beyond where you lay your heads. All ONE’s work is there and I hold the KEYS. Don’t bother trying to squeeze them out of me. They are stored in a way that I can’t even force them out. I say to you; “go back and prove all your theories and fix all your sores before you stick your head up into space any further. I could say that when using 3,4,5 or 6 in an Ecliptical Module you better come to me with more than dreams. You better have all the facts or you will have no chance. You have everything you need minus patience. Fear not and come in peace and all will be revealed and you could be like The ONE. Don’t come like a pack of wolves, approach me from the front, face to FACE, eye to EYE and the knowledge will flow like water. SHE is here for ONE’s last time and if you do anything wrong or evil your on your own. I used The Laws Of Physics Of My Father’s and Mastered your Magnetosphere and Planetary System and I am not going to fail this time. If you want more theories to amuze yourselves, show me if you have ever seen a; ” Double Ecliptical Double Star Planetary System”. I have and long for you to see The Heaven like beauty and grace of an Infanite Loop Orbital Pattern. It is so perfect you can’t even smash your heads into it and mess it up. Quit using up all you matter for next to none anti-matter. You will need it for positive progress.

    With Love of The ONE, Patmos David
    pdpettibone@comcast.net

    If the house is rocking, don’t bother knocking. Come in peace with respect to my privacy and Thy Will Be Done.

  45. Quiet Desperation

    >”Most people don’t know about NASA’s successes — only the failures ever make the mainstream news, because science is “boring” to the MSM.”

    It was different when I was a kid. When the Viking landers made it to Mars, there were front page photos of the Martian landscape for *weeks* and scattered ones months later.

    The Voyager missions got a lot of coverage, but it was noticably less than Viking.

    The recent Titan landing got about a day. There was more coverage of the “OOOOO! CASSINI GOING TO CRASH AN KEEL UZ AALLLLLLL WIT POOTONIUM!” contingent back at the launch.

    This country has no future until someone figures out how to cure toxic memes.

    Maybe they can study my natural resistance. :)

  46. Why spend money on NASA when all the secrets of the universe are laid out quite literally in the Bible?

  47. Dom

    Thanks for the corrections Ken B and Abstract Labor.

    I was not thinking of our income as a nation from taxes. Closer to $50 makes much more sense and is an easier figure to show to people.

    So to use the chart posted earlier, claiming that the War on Terror is a 110 Billion expenditure, and the rough figure of 300 million people, that leaves us with a personal expenditure of $367 on Terror.

    Do you feel safer today than you did seven years ago? After what must be nearing a Trillion dollars, do you think the world is a better place?

  48. “We are NEVER going to solve the human problems in the world because of the mankind’s strong tendency toward utter jackassery. Without some sort of Slaver telepathy amplification helmet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrint), you are never going to fix people’s broken behaviors.”

    Pardon me, I must step out expose some unwanted babies and burn a witch or two before replying. Assuming, of course, that the plague does not carry me off before I return.

    I’d like to say that I am surprised that an SF fan thinks the only solution to the world’s problems involves mind-controlling the masses but in fact, I am not surprised at all.

  49. Grand Lunar

    I know that many people NEED to read this blog entry, Phil.

    To think that all we get from NASA comes from that measly half a percent! Amazing!

    I have to wonder that if this figure was more well know that how many people would shut their trap about NASA being a waste and that it should be disposed of and have it’s budget spent on Earthly problems.
    Does anyone really think that an increase of half a percent will suddenly solve our problems on Earth?

    We need to go into space, both humans and machines. We cannot remain confined on this planet and hope to survive as a species.

    True, the steps we take today and in the immediate future are small ones. However, they will add up.

    The problem with space programs is that they are long term investments in a world that wants instant results.

  50. lope

    weird how all you guys care about is space and a couple thousand nasa employees. what about the millions without healthcare? we have bigger problems in this nation. thousands of people have already lost their job. its normal. in my opinion nasa is the biggest waste of money out there. what does it matter if we know whats out there? how will that make things better now?

  51. Brian George

    @lope: *sigh* You didn’t read the article, did you?

  52. Brian George

    Oh. This is old as hell. Nevermind :)

  53. To tell you the truth.No doubt Americans spend more on condoms than NASA.
    LOOL

  54. HAHA 24%….We might be on the Moon,Mars and etc. with that budget yearly.=P

    uhmm you spend more on candies or condoms than our own Space Program.LOLOLOL and
    I could go on………………………………………….

    -0.58% of the federal budget
    -$60 per year per tax payers
    -So that’s about 0.18 cents per day per tax p…ayers
    -$1.25 a week per tax payers
    -$5.00 a month per tax payers.

    Do the math:$60 x 300 million=$18 billion
    there you go…….

  55. You know what?If you hate NASA, and other Space Agencies because you think they spend too much on money.

    You need to throw everything that Space technology created.

  56. Well agreed with Chris !!

  57. Paul

    ChrisAstro,

    if we extend that to everything we have that benefited even a little space-related technology, we might as well live in caves.

  58. MAC

    Sorry to hear so many Americans are morans. I guess they think that NASA takes billions of dollar bills, stuffs them into rockets, and sends them hurtling into the sun. They might be surprised to find that the money actually goes to subcontractors located all over the US, enriching local coffers and boosting employment everywhere – not to mention the kick in the pants they give to technical innovation.

    Are there jumper cables for gray matter?

  59. Nick

    MAC. I agree…

    One thing though. It’s Moron.

  60. Anders

    That’s just absurd! Space advocacy now finally have the message they have been searching for for decades: “Space – it cost merely a fraction of what you think it does.”

  61. Starman

    Most people are morons and don’t pay attention to anything that’s happening around them. The sadness is that the executive branch and Congress cut budgets for political reasons with no thought to what is good for the country (worse than Morons). NASA needs a really good PR guy/Girl that can appeal to the moronic masses, maybe a movie, a love story between a Martian woman and an Earth Man and of course there has to be a child.

  62. Dale

    Read a post way up there and felt the need to inform those who aren’t aware. You can’t sell moon rocks. They are public domain and therefore selling them would be criminal act. Like the idiots that tried to sell pieces of the crashed Columbia space shuttle. We all already own those rocks. With proper training and education you can even handle them. The training and education is to ensure that you know what you are doing, hopefully, so you don’t destroy the rock.

    I also read post on another site about NASA’s “gift shop gear”. The person was complaining about it being a waste of money. An organization that no longer receives the attention, support and funding that it deserves needs to find it’s way back into the public eye. Getting out of tough with the people that, in effect, pay you can lead to misinformation and rumor just like the stuff that the article is talking about.

    On a final note. I saw post talking about how the, I’m paraphrasing, “200 billion dollar curiosity rover doesn’t help anyone.” Wow, they wish they had that much money. And isn’t helping anyone. Sure, except the people who are employed by them, the contractors that work for them, the companies that produce the raw products that they put together, inventors and people who work outside of the space industry who use that data from NASA for their own R&D, education, and kids who need something better to dream about. Other than that and I’m sure a few things that I missed, NASA isn’t helping anyone. Sorry for the long rant but that post earlier really set me off.

  63. According to http://nasacost.com/ most Americans spend less than $9 per year on NASA from personal income tax. At about $18 billion per year (0.5% of the Federal Budget) we throw out 5 TIMES that amount in edible food, $100 billion each year!

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