Why Should We Spend Money on the NASA Space Program?

NASA budget grapghThe point to spending on the space program, for example, is shown by the timeline of spinoff technologies [1]. I’m preparing the fiscal numbers using the information posted on this blog to look into asking, “What is the financial effect of science and technology funding?”, so the Apollo program is a perfect example for looking into this question. As discussed in the timeline, Apollo led to “cool suits alleviate dangers from high-heat environments and medical conditions, Kidney dialysis machines remove toxic waste from used dialysis fluid, A machine aids physical therapy and athletic development, A stress-free ‘blow molding’ process manufactures athletic shoes, Communities benefit from water purification technology, Manufacturers preserve food through freeze-drying, and Sensors detect hazardous gasses.”

In today’s money, the $20.4 billion spent on the Apollo program is equivalent to $109 billion [2]. If we look at the markets that exist now because of these technologies (attempt to estimate the revenue gained if the technology did not now exist), then the dialysis market brings in $16 billion A YEAR (+, more than that due to secondary effects from increased quality of life) [3], the sports coaching market (which would benefit from a “machine aids athletic development”) brings in $6 billion a year (-, less because an athletic development machine would only lead to changes in part of the market) [4], the physical therapy market brings in $30 billion a year (-, less is attributable to the technology) [5], the athletic shoe market brings in $75 billion a year (-, less) [6], the water purification market brings in $20 billion a year (+, more from secondary effects) [7], and the hazardous gas detection market is $2 billion a year (+, more) [8]. Note that I have not been able to assemble fiscal numbers on all of the technologies listed above because of time constraints to do all the research. Also, the spinoff timeline did not mention that the Apollo program led to the development of the expendable launch vehicle market which is $53 billion over the next 10 years [9].

So finally, we can get our hands on a comparison. $20.4 billion spent in 1970 on the space program translates to somewhere around $154.3 billion dollars _A YEAR_ in technology-based markets. What this roughly indicates is that the cuts in NASA funding is the farming equivalent to eating your seed corn.


[1] http://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2008/pdf/timeline_08.pdf

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_program

[3] http://www.firstresearch.com/Industry-Research/Kidney-Dialysis-Centers.html

[4] http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/default.aspx?indid=1542

[5] http://www.ibisworld.com/industry/default.aspx?indid=1562

[6] http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/6/prweb10808367.htm

[7] http://www.hkc22.com/waterpurification.html

[8] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/global-gas-sensors-detectors-and-analyzers-markets-190181871.html

[9] http://www.militaryaerospace.com/articles/2011/10/expendable-launch.html

Simulation Packages Expand Aircraft Design Options

NASA Technology

When engineers explore designs for safer, more fuel efficient, or faster aircraft, they encounter a common problem: they never know exactly what will happen until the vehicle gets off the ground.

“You will never get the complete answer until you build the airplane and fly it,” says Colin Johnson of Desktop Aeronautics. “There are multiple levels of simulation you can do to approximate the vehicle’s performance, however.”

altWhen designing a new air vehicle, computational fluid dynamics, or CFD, comes in very handy for engineers. CFD can predict the flow of fluids and gasses around an object—such as over an aircraft’s wing—by running complex calculations of the fluid physics. This information is helpful in assessing the aircraft’s aerodynamic performance and handling characteristics.

In 2001, after several years of development, NASA released a new approach to CFD called Cart3D. The tool provides designers with an automated, highly accurate computer simulation suite to streamline the conceptual analysis of aerospace vehicles. Specifically, it allows users to perform automated CFD analysis on complex vehicle designs. In 2002, the innovation won NASA’s Software of the Year award.

Michael Aftosmis, one of the developers of Cart3D and a fluid mechanics engineer at Ames Research Center, says the main purpose of the program was to remove the mesh generation bottleneck from CFD. A major benefit of Cart3D is that the mesh, or the grid for analyzing designs, is produced automatically. Traditionally, the mesh has been generated by hand, and requires months or years to produce for complex vehicle configurations. Cart3D’s automated volume mesh generation enables even the most complex geometries to be modeled hundreds of times faster, usually within seconds. “It allows a novice user to get the same quality results as an expert,” says Aftosmis.

Now, a decade later, NASA continues to enhance Cart3D to meet users’ needs for speed, power, and flexibility. Cart3D provides the best of both worlds—the payoff of using a complex, high-fidelity simulation with the ease of use and speed of a much simpler, lower-fidelity simulation method. Aftosmis explains how instead of simulating just one case, Cart3D’s ease of use and automation allows a user to efficiently simulate many cases to understand how a vehicle behaves for a range of conditions. “Cart3D is the first tool that was able to do that successfully,” he says.

At NASA, Aftosmis estimates that 300–400 engineers use the package. “We use it for space vehicle design, supersonic aircraft design, and subsonic aircraft design.”

Technology Transfer

To enable more use of Cart3D for private and commercial aviation entities, the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program at Langley Research Center provided funds to Desktop Aeronautics, based in Palo Alto, California, to build a plug-in to Cart3D that increases the code’s accuracy under particular flow conditions. Aftosmis says Desktop Aeronautics delivered valuable results and made Cart3D more applicable for general use. “Now they are bringing the product to market. This is something we never would have had the time to do at NASA. That’s the way the SBIR process is supposed to work.”

In 2010, Desktop Aeronautics acquired a license from Ames to sell Cart3D. The company further enhanced the software by making it cross-platform, incorporated a graphical user interface, and added specialized features to enable extra computation for the analysis of airplanes with engines and exhaust.

“I think it’s going to be game-changing for CFD,” says Aftosmis. “Cart3D is the only commercial simulation tool that can guarantee the accuracy of every solution the user does.”


altToday, Desktop Aeronautics employs Cart3D in its consulting services and licenses the spinoff product to clients for in-house use. The company provides commercial licenses and academic licenses for research and development projects.

The software package allows users to perform automated CFD analysis on complex designs and, according to the company, enables geometry acquisition and mesh generation to be performed within a few minutes on most desktop computers.

Simulations generated by Cart3D are assisting organizations in the design of subsonic aircraft, space planes, spacecraft, and high speed commercial jets. Customers are able to simulate the efficiency of designs through performance metrics such as lift-to-drag ratio.

“It will assemble a spectrum of solutions for many different cases, and from that spectrum, the cases that perform best give insight into how to improve one’s design,” says Johnson. “Cart3D’s preeminent benefit is that it’s automated and can handle complex geometry. It’s blazing fast. You push a button, and it takes care of the volume meshing and flow measurement.”

Without building an aircraft, engineers can never be completely certain which design concept will perform best in flight. However, they now have a tool to make the most informed prediction possible.


Boosting NASA’s Budget Will Help Fix Economy: Neil deGrasse Tyson



 Reinvigorating space exploration in the United States will require not only boosting NASA’s budget but also getting the public to understand how pushing the boundaries of the space frontier benefits the country’s innovation, culture and economy, said renowned astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“Space is a $300 billion industry worldwide,” Tyson said. “NASA is a tiny percent of that. [But] that little bit is what inspires dreams.”

He spoke about how space has influenced culture — ranging from how the fins on early rockets inspired fins on automobiles in the 1950s, to how the Apollo 8 mission’s iconic picture taken in 1968 of Earth rising above the horizon of the moon led to a greater appreciation for our planet and the need to protect it. Yet, many people outside the space community see itas a special interest group, Tyson said.

“Innovation drives economy,” he said. “It’s especially been true since the Industrial Revolution.”

Tyson advocated doubling NASA’s budget — which President Barack Obama set at $17.7 billion in his 2013 federal budget request — and then laid out a different approach to space exploration that he called somewhat “unorthodox.” Rather than focusing on one destination at a time, Tyson promoted building a core fleet of launch vehicles that can be customized for a variety of missions and for a range of purposes.

“We’re kind of doing that now, but let’s do that as the focus,” Tyson said. “One configuration will get you to the moon. Another will get you to a Lagrangian point. Another will get you to Mars.”

Having an available suite of launch vehicles will open up access to space for a wider range of purposes, which will, in turn, benefit the country’s economy and innovation.

Tyson compared it with the country’s system of interstates, which helped connect cities across the country and made travel more efficient.

“When Eisenhower came back from Europe after he saw the [German] autobahn, and how it survived heavy climactic variation and troop maneuvers, he said, ‘I want some of that in my country,'” Tyson explained. “So he gets everyone to agree to build the interstate system. Did he say, ‘you know, I just want to build it from New York to L.A., because that’s where you should go?’ No. The interstate system connects everybody in whatever way you want. That’s how you grow a system.”

Furthermore, this type of capability can be used for a myriad of purposes, including military endeavors, science missions, commercial expeditions and space tourism.

“Whatever the needs or urges — be they geopolitical, military, economic — space becomes that frontier,” Tyson said. “Not only do you innovate, these innovations make headlines. Those headlines work their way down the educational pipeline. Everybody in school knows about it. You don’t have to set up a program to convince people that being an engineer is cool. They’ll know it just by the cultural presence of those activities. You do that, and it’ll jump-start our dreams.”


NASA operating plan makes final adjustments for fiscal year 2014

NASA has released a summary of its fiscal year 2014 operating plan, which details any changes to spending for programs the agency has made (with the approval of Congress) from the final FY14 appropriations bill. As the table below shows, the changes are very minor; last year, NASA made bigger changes to adjust spending for agency priorities after the across-the-board cuts of sequestration went into effect. (The operating plan also provides a breakout of spending within Space Operations, which was omitted from the omnibus spending bill.)

All figures in Billions

Account FY14 Omnibus FY14 Ops Plan Difference
SCIENCE $5,151.20 $5,148.20 ($3.00)
– Earth Science $1,826.00 $1,824.90 ($1.10)
– Planetary Science $1,345.00 $1,343.40 ($1.60)
– Astrophysics $668.00 $678.30 $10.30
– JWST $658.20 $658.20 $0.00
– Heliophysics $654.00 $643.30 ($10.70)
SPACE TECHNOLOGY $576.00 $576.00 $0.00
AERONAUTICS $566.00 $566.00 $0.00
EXPLORATION SYSTEMS $4,113.20 $4,113.20 $0.00
– SLS/Orion $3,115.20 $3,115.20 $0.00
– Commercial Spaceflight $696.00 $696.00 $0.00
– Exploration R&D $302.0 $302.00 $0.00
SPACE OPERATIONS $3,778.00 $3,776.40 ($1.60)
– ISS n/a $2,964.10 NA
– Space and Flight Support n/a $812.30 NA
EDUCATION $116.60 $116.60 $0.00
CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT $2,793.00 $2,793.00 $0.00
CONSTRUCTION $515.00 $519.60 $4.60
INSPECTOR GENERAL $37.50 $37.50 $0.00
TOTAL $17,646.50 $17,646.50 ($3.10)

As SpacePolicyOnline.com (who requested the FY14 operating plan from NASA) notes, the operating plan still fully funds the SOFIA airborne observatory even though NASA is seeking to end funding for it in its FY15 budget proposal. However, there’s no guarantee that all of this funding would be used for operations of SOFIA: NASA officials warned in March that the $12 million proposed for FY15 might not be sufficient to cover the costs of mothballing the 747 aircraft

NASA 2014 Budget: More for Asteroids, Less for Planets and Education

The White House released its requested federal budget yesterday, which includes NASA funding. Trying to figure it all out is a little difficult—NASA does a lot of different things—but I have some overall impressions. I’ll note that I’m basing what follows on the released budget, a presentation by NASA, and my own experience working for companies that contracted with NASA. I’ll also note what follows are my opinions based on what I know. If more info comes along, I’ll happily re-examine my own conclusions. Don’t consider this final!

Keep in mind, too, this is a budgetrequest: The President submits this to Congress, who will then haggle. Also bear in mind that NASA’s share of the entire federal budget is a mere 0.5 percent. For every dollar spent by the government, cut a penny in half. That’s what goes to NASA.

The Whole Schmeer

The total proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2014 (which starts Oct. 1, 2013) is $17.7 billion. This is $55 million lower than 2012, and $170 lower than 2013. That’s a drop of roughly only 1 percent, which these days can be considered holding steady.

That’s the overall budget, but the devil’s in the details, of course. With a fixed budget and changing needs, some things win and others lose. Clearly, the specifics are what are important, because some have changed a lot.

What follows are some specifics, and my rant opinion on them. These numbers are from NASA’s official release about the budget. They also have some details in the budget summary.

Asteroid retrieval

asteroid capture mission
Proposed asteroid capture and retrieval mission concept.

The splashiest news is that NASA is indeed funding a mission to find, snag, bag, and bring a 5-7 meter wide asteroid to an Earth-accessible orbit. This is a fascinating idea, funded at $105 million in FY14 (which is starter money for the multiple-year project). The breakdown goes like this: finding near-Earth asteroids in general gets an addition of $20 million (on top of $20 they already got in the last budget), and of the $45 million allocated generally to space technology in the budget, $38 million of it goes to investigating an electric propulsion drive using solar power, which would be the main drive of the asteroid mission. An additional $7 million goes to general asteroid hazard mitigation technology. Finally, $40 million will go toward figuring out to how nab “uncooperative” targets—asteroids that spin or tumble—which will be a major engineering task of the mission.

In a perfect world I would be all for this. However, as I said, NASA has a fixed budget, so that money has to come from somewhere… and the total mission cost over the next few years will be $2.6 billion (not including the cost to send a crew up there to poke at it). That’s a lot. It doesn’t look like the White House will increase NASA funding for this, so that money will have to be found. *

Planetary Science

Last year, the President asked for a brutal $300 million dollar cut to planetary sciences. In this year’s budget, planetary science gets $1.2 billion, which Casey Dreier from The Planetary Society reports maintains that huge hit (even though Congress originally approved more money for it).

In the press conference, NASA chief Charles Bolden noted that some missions need less money now—Curiosity, for example, is on Mars and so does not need as much in its budget as it once did. That’s true enough, but doesn’t explain the huge drop in funding. As Dreier points out, it looks like there’s some robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul going on, which I expected. Missions and other work got moved around a bit, so now planetary science gets a couple of projects that used to be under other umbrellas*, and has to pay for them. In terms of actual money going to planetary work, they get a pretty big cut.

There is some good news in there: Included is seed money for the 2020 launch of another Mars rover, and the launch of the MAVEN Mars atmospheric mission in 2014. They’ll also be launching OSIRIS-Rex in 2016, an exciting mission to near-Earth asteroid 1999 RQ36, which includes a sample return in 2023.

But overall, cutting planetary science is crazy. It’s one of the leading faces NASA has with the public—people gathered in Times Square to watch Curiosity land, for criminy sake!—and those missions are among the most successful scientifically. We need more of them, not fewer.

I know NASA has a fixed budget, I know everyone is screaming “Austerity!”, and I know the government wants to shave every dime it can. But investing in this kind of science always pays off. Also, the public loves it, so it’s a political win.

Unless I’m missing something, cutting funding of planetary research is nuts. Keep your eyes on The Planetary Society; they’ve been quite vocal about all this.


Continuing the bad news, education takes a big hit, going from $137 million to $94 million, a 33 percent cut. Some of this is in the form of consolidating NASA’s educational efforts with the Department of Education. Right now, a lot of NASA education is already centralized, but quite a bit is done on a mission basis; each mission has a percentage of its money go toward education. This new consolidation idea wasn’t spelled out completely in the budget release or the press conference. While saving money sounds like a good idea, what happens to those folks working on mission E/PO? Will they simply lose their jobs, or will they be told to take new jobs and move, or what?

I imagine a lot of E/PO folks are very worried right now. I wonder what Congress will say to this cut?

Crewed Flight

NASA is currently building the Orion capsule to be used to take humans into space. This has been “fully funded”, with the first planned uncrewed launch in 2014. The Space Launch System (SLS)—a heavy-lift replacement for the Shuttle—is also fully funded. The Shuttle funding has of course been zeroed out, so in essence that’s like $600 million back into the NASA ecosystem, which helps.

Artist’s illustration of an SLS launch. Click to enlaunchenate.

Image credit: NASA/MSFC

Right now, the plan is for SLS to have its first test flight in 2017, and a crewed launch in 2021 (the mission to take humans to the asteroid towed into near-Earth space would be planned for 2025 or so). I’ll note some members of Congress are openly advocating for a return to the Moon around that time as well.

I wonder, though. The SLS is a good idea in principle, but I worry. The Shuttle was supposed to launch every two weeks and be much cheaper than comparable rockets. It never came close to that. Commercial space ventures can do this sort of thing much cheaper than NASA can; SpaceX is demonstrating that, and there are several other contenders.

So do we really need the SLS? My feelings run parallel to my friend and space historian Andy Chaikin’s; NASA needs to be very aware of costs and need. I like the idea of having a backup to commercial rockets, but when it costs so much, that makes me uneasy. Constellation, the first follow-up proposed for the Shuttle, overran its budget and got so far behind schedule President Obama canceled it (and SLS took its place).

If NASA’s budget were upped by, say, two or three billion bucks, and it’s demonstrated that the SLS is under control and needed, I’d support all this happily. But with the budget the way it is, and a new very expensive mission to an asteroid is added in, I wonder over these big expenditures for a new rocket.

…And The Rest

There’s a host of other stuff in the budget. James Webb Space Telescope will see an extra $140 million over last year, which is expected to meet its launch date of October 2018. Commercial space funding goes from about $400 to $800 million, which is expected and welcome. I like the idea of partnering with business for “routine” launches since, as I pointed out above, they can do it cheaper (and be more flexible about it, too). This also reduces reliance on having to pay Russia for launches.

I was glad to see Earth Science go from $1.76 billion to $1.85 billion, with lots of climate missions. NASA (partnering with NOAA) is on the forefront of investigating climate change, and more power (and dollars) to them for it.

There’s a lot more in the budget, but for now I think that’s enough. This budget is preliminary and therefore bound to change quite a bit. To be honest: it better change. I’m happy with some bits, but very unhappy with others. It always seems to come down to not having quite enough money to do what needs to be done, and to be frank, that’s dumb. NASA’s budget is a pittance compared to many other agencies and the federal budget as a whole. It costs a lot just to get NASA able to do the basics, and what it costs to do all this right is only a little bit more. This budget, like every NASA budget for the past several years, strikes me as penny wise and pound foolish. It’s like buying a car and saying you can’t afford to put gas in it.

Perhaps Penny4NASA has the right idea: Increase NASA’s budget to a full penny per dollar—1 whole percent of the budget—and see where they can take us. I’m betting it’s a long, long way.

NASA receives $17.65b FY2014 Budget. Just short of the $18b proposal.

NASA logoThe NASA budget for the current fiscal year is finally taking shape,according to a January 14, 2014 post on Space Policy Online. NASA will get to spend $17.65 billion on its various operations and activities, far more than the $16.1 billion that many feared under sequestration but a little short of the $18 billion that some in Congress desired.

The rough breakdown of NASA spending looks like this:

“$4,113 million for exploration, of which

$696 million is for commercial crew, with $171 million available only after the Administrator certifies that the program has undergone an independent benefit-cost analysis

$1,197 million is for Orion

$1,918 million is for Space Launch System (SLS) of which $1,600 million is for launch vehicle development and $318 million is for exploration ground systems

$302 million is for exploration research and development

$5,151 million for science, of which $80 million is for pre-formulation or formulation activities for a Europa mission, and the James Webb Space Telescope’s development costs remain capped at $8 billion

$576 million for space technology

$566 million for aeronautics

$3,778 million for space operations

$116.6 million for education, of which

$18 million is for EPSCOR and

$40 million is for Space Grant

$2,793 million for Cross Agency Support

$515 million for Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration

$37.5 million for Inspector General”

According to Space Politics there are a number of provisions within the omnibus spending bill the affects NASA policy.

For instance, while planetary science gets only a modest increase over the administration’s request, Congress presses NASA to accelerate the selection of the next Discovery class mission, with an announcement of opportunity no later than May 1, 2014 and a selection of one or more missions in September, 2015.

The bill notes that NASA needs to conduct an independent cost/benefit analysis for the commercial crew program that takes into account the cost to the federal government and the expected life of the International Space Station. A little uncertainty as to the latter has arisen thanks to the recent announcement of the extension of the ISS to 2024.

NASA prohibits NASA from diverting funds from the Space Launch System program to engineering or other activities unrelated to SLS.

Under space operations, “The bill sets aside $100 million for a satellite servicing program, and the report includes a provision directing NASA to propose policies or legislation that address intellectual property concerns regarding ISS research.”

Finally the bill extends the commercial launch liability indemnification provision for another three years.


$16.6 Billion NASA Budget Clears House Panel

WASHINGTON — A House panel approved appropriations legislation Wednesday (July 10) that would give NASA $16.6 billion for 2014, cutting agency spending back to levels not seen since 2007.

As expected, the bill from the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee assumes that across-the-board sequestration cuts set in motion by the Budget Control Act of 2011 will continue at least through next year, and that NASA won’t be spared. The proposal, unveiled late Tuesday (July 9), passed the subcommittee by a voice vote, setting the stage for the full Appropriations Committee to consider the bill the week of July 15.

The House panel’s proposed 2014 appropriation is about $300 million less than what NASA ended up with for 2013, roughly $1.2 billion below the agency’s 2012 budget and about $1.1 billion less than what the White House requested for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. [Planetary Science Takes Budget Hit in 2013 (Infographic)]

Senate appropriators have yet to introduce their own Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill, so it remains to be seen whether the upper chamber will be able to find more money for NASA. Senate leaders have approved a $52.3 billion allocation for Commerce, Justice and Science agencies in 2014 — only about $1 billion more than House leaders did.

The House subcommittee’s bill, which is due to be marked up July 10, shields the Space Launch System(SLS) heavy-lift rocket NASA is building for missions beyond Earth orbit from the worst of the cuts. Including rocket development at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., launchpad and ground facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and program support from other NASA centers, SLS would get $1.77 billion — about $30 million more than what the program would get under the operating plan NASA sent its congressional overseers in May, and roughly $30 million less than the White House’s 2014 request.

SLS’ companion crew capsule, Orion, would get $1.05 billion for 2014, roughly $60 million less than what NASA planned to spend in 2013, but about $25 million more than the White House asked for in an April budget request that ignored sequestration.

House appropriators applied no special provisions in their bill to the Commercial Crew Program, a NASA-subsidized partnership with industry aimed at getting at least one of three privately designed crewed spacecraft ready to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station before the end of 2017.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Science space subcommittee, which is marking up a policy-setting authorization bill for NASA July 10, agree that the Commercial Crew Program should get up to $700 million a year — less than the White House wants, but more than Congress has appropriated to date.

More detailed information about specific programs, including Commercial Crew and the various NASA Science disciplines, typically shows up in a document known as a bill report. Reports do not usually appear until after a bill has been marked up at the subcommittee or committee level.

The bill itself proposes the following funding levels for NASA’s major budget accounts:

Science: $4.78 billion, about even with what NASA planned to spend in 2013, according to its May operating plan, and roughly $230 million below the 2014 request. The House bill also mandates that $80 million of NASA’s 2014 science budget go toward early planning for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

  • Exploration: $3.61 billion, nearly $70 million less than what was in the 2013 operating plan, and about $300 million less than the request.
  • Space operations: $3.67 billion, most of which will go toward the International Space Station. That is $50 million below the May operating plan, and roughly $210 million below the request.
  • Space Technology: $576 million, $64 million below the May operating plan and about $165 million less than requested.
  • Aeronautics: $566 million, about $35 million more than the 2013 operating plan and about flat compared with the 2014 request.
  • Cross Agency Support: $2.71 billion, even with the 2013 operating plan from May, but almost $140 million below the request.
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration: $525 million, about $120 million below the operating plan and nearly $85 million below the request.
  • Education: $122 million, $6 million above the operating plan for 2013, and close to $30 million above the request. The Obama administration proposed a restructuring of federal education dollars for the 2014 spending year that, at least among NASA’s congressional overseers, has proven unpopular.
  • Inspector General: $35.3 million, even with the 2013 operating plan level and roughly $2 million below the request.