How much do governments spend on space science?
President Donald Trump recently signalled his commitment to America’s space programme with a $208 million increase in funding for NASA, taking the total to $19.5bn. That may seem like a glorious return to the space race, but the truth is actually a little more mundane.
NASA’s budget reached its highest ever point in 1966 during the Apollo missions, when it hit $5.9bn – and although that sounds like nearly a quarter of what it is now, in today’s money that comes to around $43.5bn: a pretty unsustainable 4.41% of the total federal budget. Back then, space was demonstrably a bigger priority than it is today, where it takes up a reedy 0.47% of the budget – the lowest it’s been since 1959, when NASA was just two years old. In fact, the country as a whole spends more on pizza than it does on space exploration (albeit with a disappointing lack of state subsidy).
And yet, despite successive generations of US governments putting space science on the backburner, NASA is still the world’s most funded space agency, as the chart below from our friends at Statista demonstrates. The US spends more than three times as much as Europe, nine times as much as China and over seven times as much as old cold war rivals Russia.
Although the US leads the way, in terms of growth it’s pretty stagnant. The budget rise from 2016 to 2017 was just over 1%, while the European Space Agency’s jumped by around 9.5%. It’s still better than Russia’s Roscosmos, mind, which was subject to a 30% cut in 2016.
Of course, what the chart doesn’t tell you is anything about the private sector, and given that the world’s second richest man, Jeff Bezos, recently revealed that he invests $1bn per year in his private space venture (making the Amazon founder’s pet project only slightly poorer than India and Japan’s space programmes), you can bet there’s a lot of money sloshing around there too.
And here’s where it gets a bit fuzzy, because plenty of NASA’s budget is spent within the private sector. Contracts with Boeing and SpaceX have proven necessary since the space agency retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, for example, and these contracts frequently run into billions of dollars – making these companies of a similar scale to some government agencies.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that Elon Musk – both a competitor and friend of NASA – seems a little underwhelmed by how little NASA’s budget is moving under a president who promised: “Under a Trump Administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars.” The costs involved mean some kind of state help is still necessary when it comes to the astronomical figures involved in dealing with life beyond Earth.