In today’s Finshots, we tell you why America’s space agency, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is struggling to fund its space missions.

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Now, let's dive in.

The Story

In October 1957, the Soviet Union took the world by surprise. It launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. And that nudged the US to step up its space engineering efforts. It didn’t want to fall behind a rival superpower. So, the US government poured resources into its space programme and formed NASA.

It was an all-out race.

But that competitive spirit seems to be waning away. And it’s not us saying this. It's NASA's budget cuts that are speaking for itself.

You see, NASA had requested about $27 billion for all of its missions, space explorations and operations in FY24 (October 2023 - September 2024). But it only received funds that were close to 9% lower than its expectations and 2% lower than the previous year. And now, the budget request that it has just placed for FY25 is $2 billion lower than what it asked for last year.

That’s a lot of money to give up. Especially when you put things into perspective. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory built in 1999 that has been key to understanding black holes and galaxies was built with that sum of money (not adjusted for inflation).

But why isn’t NASA getting the money it wants, you ask?

Well, for starters, it’s to do with the US government’s debt burden itself. Last year, the country was on the brink of a default and it has been paring back on what it considers unnecessary or discretionary spending.

Yes, NASA’s programmes are considered a part of that bucket because times have changed since the 1960s.

Back then, the US was itching to win the race to the moon and beat the Soviet Union. It didn’t hesitate to splash the cash on NASA. At its peak in 1965, NASA funding was at some 5% of the total US government spending. And using all those resources, NASA was able to create Apollo — the space mission to land the first humans on the moon.

This programme was so important that 3 out of every 5 dollars for space programs went to the Apollo mission. And NASA spent upwards of $25 billion on it. Adjusted for inflation that’s a whopping $283 billion in today’s value.

But once the US put boots on the moon in 1969, the funding tap closed too. The US felt that it had defeated the Soviet Union. Even the agenda of the politicians were met.

And it wasn’t just that. The Apollo mission divided Americans because a section of the citizens also felt that the government could have spent the money better in helping the millions of Americans who couldn’t afford basic necessities and were poor. People protested outside the NASA launchpad too.

And with all this, the government put further missions on the backburner. It cancelled the final 3 out of the originally planned 20 Apollo missions. And NASA’s funding slowly started spiralling downward.

Sure, the US still has the highest space expenditure in the world, but NASA gets less than 0.4% from the budget allocation.

And NASA doesn’t like that. It feels it deserves more money because of its actual economic output — at $71 billion, its 3 times the investment being made into it.

How, you ask?

For instance, it provides the agricultural sector with data that can more accurately forecast crop productivity. It can help farm produce exporters drum up sales, set prices and generate international customers. It also tracks devastating storms that can destroy lives and the economy. In 2017, a polar-orbiting satellite helped track a hurricane across the Caribbean and the southeastern US so residents could make vital preparations ahead of time.

But beyond that, if the US wants to continue to be a world leader in space exploration, NASA might need the money to fund its big plans.

It wants to permanently build a presence on the moon instead of sending astronauts back and forth, with a mini space station orbiting it through the Artemis program. It could not just help study lunar water that’s useful for drinking, oxygen, or even as a chemical component of rocket fuel, but could also potentially reduce the costs and risks associated with future space missions like heading to Mars. And to make that a more cost-effective reality, the US has also signed the Artemis Accords, an agreement with over 30 countries including India so that they can team up to peacefully explore space, utilise space resources sustainably and preserve moon artefacts.

It’s also keen on collaborating with private companies to rake in innovative and cost-effective architectural designs for spacecraft that can help bring back samples from Mars that NASA’s Perseverance Rover has been collecting since 2021. It’s one of the most ambitious missions that NASA has ever undertaken and involves safely transporting Mars samples over 33 million miles back to Earth.

But can these tweaks help NASA to do justice to all its missions?

Only time will tell.

Until then…

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