The Limits of NASA Funding

NASA budget history graph

Prologue: I’m all about finding solutions. Solutions to the problems that are preventing our future in space. Solutions that will get us past our low Earth orbit (LEO) “barrier”. So, when you read about the show-stopping problem in this article, please keep in mind that I’ve already worked up a solution…which, in basic form, is on the front page of the website, and more thoroughly discussed in my power post. This article is essentially a small excerpt (with Artemis and covid-19 updates) of that overarching power post.

NASA budget history graph and timeline of human space exploration systems, adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars.
$20(+/-5) Billion…the de facto NASA budget.

NASA’s budget and functional culture is constrained to operating one major human spaceflight (HSF) system while concurrently developing one major HSF system. There’s 50+ years of evidence!

This graph shows that, ever since around 1970, the de facto level of funding for NASA has been roughly $20(+/-5) billion per year, adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars. There hasn’t been much inflation since then, so the numbers still hold for 2020.

Considering it’s been at this level for 50 years, it’s probably a good bet it’ll remain there as we go forward. We can’t count on NASA’s budget rising to unrealistic levels. I would like to see it go higher, as do many others, but history says that’s just wishful thinking, at best. (Congress, please prove me wrong!)

So, What Might this Level of Funding be Capable of?

Again, judging from history, it looks like NASA’s able to develop roughly one major system while it concurrently operates one major system. Some overlap is inevitable and expected, but 1 and 1 looks about right. Please note, I’m focusing only on major human space exploration projects.

One and One

For example (refer to the budget graph), while NASA was developing the Space Shuttle system, they were at the tail end of operating the Saturn V rockets (and only briefly had people onboard Skylab in 1973/74). In other words, developing one major system (Shuttle) while operating one major system (Saturn V).

Once Space Shuttle became operational, that freed up funding to build the International Space Station (ISS) (operating one major system (Shuttle), developing one major system (ISS)).

Once ISS was up and running, the Space Shuttles were retired. That allowed funding to be directed to the next major project, Constellation…which was cancelled and replaced with the Space Launch System (SLS). Which is where NASA is today…developing one major system (SLS) and operating one major system (ISS).

One and One Going Forward

Next in line for NASA is turning over ISS operations to private industry and getting SLS operational so they can develop the next major system, which was the Lunar Gateway (LOP-G), but the priority now is Artemis. Meaning, once again, NASA will be developing one major HSF system (Artemis) while operating one major HSF system (SLS).

“That’s not an opinion…that’s an observation, based on 50+ years of evidence.”

When it comes to major human space exploration systems, NASA is hard pressed to get much more out of its de facto budget than developing one major system while operating one major system. That’s not an opinion…that’s an observation, based on 50+ years of evidence.

Is This Going to be a Problem?

We can build our Moon and Mars assets one major system at a time. But, here’s the problem. Getting to Mars will require developing and/or operating several major systems concurrently. Here’s a back of the napkin list of most of the big-ticket items:

What goes good with a mocha and a very tasty pita pocket sandwich? A back of the napkin list of most of the major systems needed for astronauts to go to the surface of Mars. Getting to Mars will require developing and/or operating several major systems concurrently. This is a problem. The last 50 years has shown that NASA has enough funding to concurrently develop only one major human space exploration system while operating one major system.
Pita. Mocha. Mars.
  • Lunar Gateway (LOP-G).
  • SLS (multiple launches).
  • Earth to Mars transit ship(s) (plus, parked in Mars orbit for 2+ years, then return to Earth).
  • Mars descent/ascent cargo and human-rated vehicles.
  • Mars surface habitats and infrastructure capable of sustaining its crew for 2+ years.
  • Lunar surface activities/facilities needed to support the research and testing of multiple subsystems and capabilities needed for Mars.

Except maybe for the lunar surface activities/facilities, all these major systems will need to be operational concurrently when we go to Mars.

It’s Already a Problem

However, the problem starts much sooner than Mars. If/when Artemis becomes operational, the plan is to develop the Lunar Gateway and human lunar surface activities/facilities to prepare for Mars. Which means NASA will be concurrently operating SLS and Artemis and Gateway and lunar surface facilities. This pushes the NASA budget graph way beyond the 50-year norm, right off the bat. And that’s just the operational side…Mars assets need to be concurrently in development.

How likely do you think it is that Congress will go beyond the 50 year norm and significantly increase funding for NASA? Especially now, considering the huge financial hit we’re taking with Covid-19? Also consider that our Moon and Mars plans are dependent on commercial and international participation, and they’re taking the same covid-19 hit.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a better way, and you can read about it in my power post.