Can the U.S. Afford to "go it alone" to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond?

by Thomas Andrew Olson

(originally presented August, 2000, revised 2005)

The prime mission of space advocacy groups like the Mars Society, NSS, or the Space Frontier Foundation is to help mobilize public support for missions into the solar system and ultimately, human settlement. These are important goals which should, of course, be pursued. But that pursuit should also include a clear picture of all the obstacles one will face in taking that road, and the history behind them. This section will attempt to provide that picture.

If our shared goal was merely exploration of the Moon or Mars, NASA – having first been blessed and budgeted by Congress - could no doubt achieve that goal within a decade or a bit more. But if the purpose is space settlement – a functioning series of self-sustaining colonies, as a spearhead for the next phase in the evolution of human civilization, it is a different picture. Settlements cost a lot more than exploration missions, and no one government could foot that bill alone – not even the U.S., by far the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth today.

"What," you say? "The US economy is larger than at any time in history, boasting an astounding 11 Trillion dollar Gross Domestic Product for FY05. If we only shifted a few national priorities, we could afford it easily!" That argument can be silenced with one word - one that will be employed later. For now, though, let's look at some history:

Although archival data is available going back as far as 1934, let us concentrate on the last 30 years only for purposes of presentation.

The line in the chart above tracks total US tax receipts as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product. As you may notice, that line is relatively flat, only varying between 17.5%-20.6% over the last 3 decades. This is actually rather an interesting discovery - regardless of the growth of government taxation and spending (and people's complaints about it), the growth of tax receipts is not in any real way disproportionate with the US economy as a whole. It was 20% as far back as the height of World War II in 1943, and hit its only low point of 14.4% in 1953. Other than that exception, the line for the last 50+ years is pretty much as you see here, relatively flat.

Now let's add the next line:

The second line in the chart above depicts the NASA budget, as a percentage of the Federal budget as a whole over the last 30 years. Here, also, that line is relatively flat, varying between a 1970 high, at the height of the Apollo program, of 1.9%, to an all-time low of 0.7% in 1986, in the wake of the Challenger disaster. This averages out to be 1.02% of US expenditures annually. Since that flat line runs relatively parallel to that of total tax collection relative to GDP, it can be said that NASA's budget has grown at an almost linear pace with that of government as a whole. Many would claim we are getting a lot of bang for that buck, considering. But we're far from finished...

Now let's add Defense spending:

Hey, looking better, isn't it?

The green line in the chart shows the Defense budget, also as a percentage of the Federal budget, over the last 30 years. Here, we have a definite downward trend. Remember the "peace dividend" we were supposed to get from the end of the Cold War? This line would suggest that's finally happening. Of course, remember, it's only the percentage of military spending out of the budget as a whole that has dropped. Keep in mind that when you think about the red line, government budgets have grown at a tremendous rate, right along with the economy, and federal outlays today are 9 times what they were in 1970! If you are the Secretary of Defense, which would you rather have, 41% of $280 billion, or 16% of $1.8 Trillion? [addendum: actually, on further review, if you adjust for inflation, the numbers are nearly the same. That is, in itself, significant, as it suggests the military also has consistant funding levels, whether in times of war or peace]

Even so, with all that huge economy and drop in real defense spending, federal funding of space colonization should be a snap, right? Not so fast...remember, spending in real dollars grew from 280 Billion to 1.8 Trillion in the last 30 years. So, if taxation has remained constant, NASA spending has remained constant, and Defense spending has dropped, where is all the money going? Therein lies the rub...and the "one word" that can and will shoot down all government-funded space dreams:


For the political class, entitlements are the "love that dare not speak its name", the overwhelming burden on the body politic. We give the line a gold color and a thicker weight for that reason. Entitlements, or "direct payments to individuals" (by GAO definition), is indeed, for 10's of millions of Americans, the "golden goose".

Entitlement spending was only 26% of all federal outlays when John F. Kennedy commited us to the race to the Moon. It had only grown to 33% by 1970. But with Vietnam winding down, and interest in lunar adventures waning, the social pressure was on to increase funding for all the Great Society programs initiated by Lyndon Johnson. The tap continues to increase it's flow, projected to reach the 67% mark by 2005 – think about it – by 2005, a full 2/3 of the taxes you pay goes directly into someone else's pocket, with government being the great middleman. If that goes on, the government of the US will be totally bankrupt by 2030 - unless, of course, that 50-year, 1-to-5 ratio history of taxation-to-GDP, that "hidden covenant" with the American people, is dramatically altered.

That could cause the economy the tax base depends upon to spiral down dangerously, thus killing that proverbial Golden Goose. That huge number of entitlement recipients also amounts, today, to a large and powerful lobby and voting bloc. At the risk of being labeled cynical, we must conclude that Congress would shut down NASA completely before allowing that voting bloc to lose its meal ticket - and Congress's. The dream of space settlement will die with it...

...assuming, of course, we limit ourselves to the old ways of thinking and of funding things!

(Here is an even more detailed analysis by Chad Lupkes)




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