Understanding NASA's Funding Limitations

With the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 trip to the Moon in the books last week, I thought it might be fun to turn a bit of attention to NASA’s current affairs.

If you haven’t heard, the President and Vice President have given the Agency a five year deadline to land a successful manned mission on the Moon - hoping to do so by the end of 2024 - coincident, I’m sure, with the end of a second Trump term in office. What’s particularly interesting to me is what the Administration hasn’t given NASA as they set out to achieve this audacious goal - more funding.

Historical NASA Funding

Since the late-1960s, federal funding for NASA has hovered around $20 Billion per year in inflation-adjusted current dollars, and hasn’t really seen a material increase except for a bump in the early 1990s in support of the Space Shuttle program.

Yearly NASA Spending

The byproduct of this year-over-year stagnation is that current NASA funding levels, as measured by their percentage of the Federal discretionary spending budget, currently sit at their lowest level since NASA’s inception in the late ’50s.

NASA Spending as a Percentage of the Federal Budget

Upcoming Budget

So - for the money that NASA does have, where is it going? NASA’s 2020 budget resolution gives some insight into which the programs the money is flowing into. Human Exploration and supporting activities make up the plurality of spending, with heavy investment into the Space Launch System and Orion capsule in particular.

NASA’s 2020 Budget Areas

To take a deeper peek into NASA’s financials, you can refer to their FY 2020 Budget Request, which has spending totals for the year as well as a description and rationale for each individual program they are funding. I’ve taken the liberty of visualizing each line-item of $100M or more below - while the Plotly render may be a little bit messy, you should be able to hover over each item to understand which Category and Subcategory it comes from, as well as the projected 2020 spend!

Thoughts Moving Forward

With an extensive number of programs to support, and high costs for many of the different Deep Space and LEO programs which are now a priority to meet President Trump and Vice President Pence’s space goals, it seems clear that NASA will require additional funding to ensure the successful completion of the SLS, Orion, and Gateway projects. Furthermore, despite advances over the past 30 years in computers, networking, and commercial spaceflight, it seems crazy to me that Congress and the President are asking NASA to complete such an audacious goal for human spaceflight while simultaneously devoting the fewest resources (relative to total budget) in history. While we will likely never see anything like the space race of the ’60s again, with it’s 4% of the federal budget spending on NASA, it seems appropriate to me to restore funding to early ’90s levels when development on the Space Shuttle was in full flight, and we were devoting roughly 1% of the federal budget to NASA spending.

Bonus Map

Wikipedia has a cool map published of how NASA spending impacts each state… I thought it might be useful to recreate it, but with a color element so that one could simply peek at the map and understand the distribution of spending by state, without having to read all of the labels on the map. Take a peek below! I think the political and economic ramifications for how much $$ gets spent where is very interesting…

Map of NASA Spending