In contrast to the Soviets’ militarized efforts, President Dwight Eisenhower wanted a peaceful space program that would demonstrate American moral superiority. This civilian agency would be a key part of America’s Cold War strategy. When Kennedy set his eyes on the moon 50 years ago, he asked his science advisers for an initiative “in which we could win.” When Ronald Reagan kicked off the space station program in 1984, his motivations weren’t much different. “We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we’re free,” he said.
Even after the Cold War, the Clinton administration recast human spaceflight as a means of turning Russia’s aerospace industry toward peaceful purposes and validating Russia’s entry into the community of Western democracies. The idea that the U.S. government would spend billions colonizing the solar system reflects the cultural impact of “Star Trek,” not reality.
2. NASA is extraordinarily expensive.
At the height of the Apollo program, NASA consumed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. In the 1960s, that was a lot of money. Today, it’s a rounding error. NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2011 is roughly $18.5 billion — 0.5 percent of a $3.7 trillion federal budget. In 2010, Americans spent about as much on pet food.
And those who complain that it is a waste to spend money in space forget that NASA creates jobs. According to the agency, it employs roughly 19,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors in and around its 10 centers. In the San Francisco area alone, the agency says it created 5,300 jobs and $877 million worth of economic activity in 2009. Ohio, a state hard-hit by the Great Recession that is home to NASA’s Plum Brook Research Station and Glenn Research Center, can’t afford to lose nearly 7,000 jobs threatened by NASA cuts.
Even more people have space-related jobs outside the agency. According to the Colorado Space Coalition, for example, more than 163,000 Coloradans work in the space industry. Though some build rockets for NASA, none show up in the agency’s job data.