(MintPress) — From the comfort of a memory foam mattress to the security of a household smoke detector, NASA has been operating in our lives, often without us knowing or understanding.
Yet with so many integral items coming out of the agency, alongside breakthroughs in space discoveries, including the recent touchdown on Mars, NASA has consistently been on the cutting block for government funding, receiving far less than other sectors of the federal budget — the 2013 budget for defense is slated at nearly 100 times the amount earmarked for NASA, which is set to receive $17.7 billion. That’s down from funding of $18.4 billion in 2011.
While known for space exploration that for some seems ‘far off’ and separate from activities of everyday importance, the government space agency has been an integral part of society, responsible for aerogel shoe liners, foam insulation and air purification devices, to name a few.
NASA itself has an entire website devoted to what the agency refers to as spin-offs, complete with examples and explanations of technology NASA scientists discovered along the way to space exploration.
On the site, the agency defines a spin-off as “a technology, originally developed to meet NASA mission needs, that has been transferred to the public and now provides benefits for the Nation and world as a commercial product or service.” That means the research and discovery behind most inventions emerges from a variety of sectors of the agency itself.
A portion of that site even features a carnival-like game intended to educate the public on its wide reaching ‘spin off’ impacts in today’s society and industries.
While many of the technological breakthroughs seen in normal society largely result from collaboration with businesses and universities, it does first rely on discoveries made through NASA.
While discussing the number of everyday products produced in cooperation with NASA, the agency’s media department directed MintPress to a series of videos, one of which includes Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek explaining the impact NASA’s discoveries have on the economy and society.
“The products and services that come from NASA technology have created tens of thousands of high-tech jobs and billions of dollars in revenue,” Trebek said, speaking on behalf of NASA. “In fact, our economic growth spurred by our nation’s investment in space is helping us maintain our place as the world leader, in technology and industry.”
Trebek’s statement takes a look at the importance of the agency, not just in terms of space exploration, but in the future of our country. With discoveries leading to technological advances and, therefore, jobs within the sector, he makes the argument that NASA plays too important of a role within our economy and society to scale back on.
It’s a position that has been taken up by many technology advocates, who have rallied behind the argument that NASA’s budget should at least be left alone for 2013, claiming there are other areas that could better handle the cuts.
Breaking down the numbers
In June, scientists staged bake sale demonstrations against proposed cuts to the agency, which include a 2013 budget decrease of $300 million — a figure proposed in President Barack Obama’s budget. In all, the proposal would allocate roughly $17.7 billion to the agency. The proposal for defense spending is set at $614 billion, which, too, is a decrease from years past, as it includes a decrease of $32 billion from 2011.
To break it down further, the amount of money earmarked for spending in the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan includes a budget worth $10 billion more than is allocated for all of NASA, with $27 billion set aside for the end of the wars.
While it seems like a hefty amount of funding for ‘space,’ it leaves many areas within NASA dealing with limited funds. The education budget, which seemingly plays a vital role in the success of the agency, would receive roughly $100,000 in funding — a 31 percent decrease from where its budget was at in 2011.
“Our spacecraft are lasting longer, our spacecraft are doing very noble science, but they’re very expensive to operate, so you can’t have the money both to operate systems for much longer than their expected operating life, and have the money to invest the next generation of spacecraft and scientific instruments as you go forward,” Deputy Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Eugene Tattini, said in a press release.
Promote science, but pull the plug?
Cuts are being seen in many sectors of NASA, including areas exclusively designated for space exploration. In fact, the Obama administration had proposed cutting funds for Mars exploration by $200 million, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that the 40 percent cut in funding would severely stifle discovery missions, especially after 2014.
“Even NASA’s ardent backers concede that the government has to start tightening its belt, and that giving the agency more money means giving some other programs less. But the United States can’t afford to risk its technological leadership in space exploration, or squander the gains that could come from firsthand knowledge of Mars,” the LA Times argued in a recent editorial.
Aside from stifling U.S. leadership in worldwide space discovery and possible technological advances, many of which we’re not yet aware of, the lack of funding for the program could lead to a decline in American interest. In a time when science and technology programs, including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), are being encouraged in schools throughout the nation, NASA is seeing cuts which will arguably lead to fewer jobs within such sectors, and fewer jobs.
“Whatever the needs or urges — be they geopolitical, military, economic — space becomes that frontier,” NASA Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said in an April NASA press release. “Not only do you innovate, these innovations make headlines. Those headlines work their way down the educational pipeline.”
Those critical of the cuts look at the slash to NASA’s education budget, saying it can only contribute to a negative impact on the future of the industry. Within the education budget, funding for the STEM program alone is seeing a substantial drop — from $75 million in 2011 to a proposed $67 million in 2013. STEM education and accountability projects, in particular, are set to decrease from $50 million in 2012 to $37 million in 2013.
With government cuts that aren’t likely to halt anytime soon, the agency may be forced to look in a different direction. NASA is no stranger to privatization. In 2009, it outsourced the task of building some of its space-related equipment to private companies. Since then, it has taken on the trend of hiring private firms to carry out a number of its former duties.
The question now is, how far will it go?