“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”The Red Queen, Alice in Wonderland
Taking longer than initially planned or merely advertised is a hallmark of NASA projects, but the US Congress continues a similar tradition, usually delaying approving NASA’s yearly budget. An astute observer is tempted to say delayed dollars for delayed projects – how appropriate! Then, in a now well-choreographed dance, projects blame some of their delay on the delay in their dollars showing up. Though maybe all we have here is an apt metaphor. Dollars or their projects are all in the same spaceship trying to reach orbit.
Congress approved this year’s NASA budget just before the holidays in 2022, which might sound fine, except the Federal government begins its fiscal year on October 1st. On the bright side, better late than never. Also, Congress did increase NASA’s budget by a generous 6 percent. That’s not bad, but we also saw headlines about inflation last year at 8 percent. Though there’s something to cheer about a 6 percent budget increase for 2023 when inflation appears on track to be on par. Close enough? If only being close did the trick. Unfortunately, like getting to orbit, close won’t cut it.
Since 1995, NASA’s budget has declined by 15 percent – when adjusted for inflation. Slightly fewer dollars than would make up for inflation every year add up over a generation to a double-digit loss of purchase power. A scratch here, a small cut there, you feel faint from the blood loss before you know it. And this is a kind interpretation, that 15 percent loss of purchase power.
Can the yearly cost of science and spaceflight be tracked, like the price of a loaf of bread? Notice – there are two moving parts here, a cost, and the thing you buy, the bread. In practice, the patient experts who figure this out track similar aerospace products, but these are produced at a much higher volume than spaceflight. There is other technology, too, “close” enough to compare but not quite an identical loaf of bread.
It would not be surprising to find spaceflight, much like adjusting the budget of any other federal agency, simply costs as much more every year as is appropriated. The matter is what you purchase, rockets, satellites, planetary probes, and scientific knowledge. This is one complex basket of goods. What we put in our basket is weighed no more easily than adding up the bill. A common NASA saying about costs was that if you like figuring out what a NASA project costs, you’ll love figuring out the benefit. Outside NASA, we hear a new phrase–“Shrinkflation,” capturing the same sense. Did you pay the same for a smaller chocolate bar?
NASA’s budget should be $29.9 billion this year, but it is $25.4 billion.
Last year and into 2023, the NASA inflation index crossed the number two compared to 1995. So, NASA now needs two dollars for every dollar it had in 1995 to get the equivalent (if it were easily measured) of science, benefits, hardware, or R&D. NASA’s budget should be $29.9 billion this year, but it is $25.4 billion. That’s the 15% loss of purchase power, according to NASA’s own inflation indices.
Other measures are encouraging nonetheless. One of NASA’s most important budget items, Cross Agency Support, which can be imagined as the fixed cost or “overhead” of any business, has been steadily dropping. Finally, someone said enough is enough and to make do. In 2012 this “support” cost consumed 21 percent of the yearly NASA budget, but it now stands at 15 percent. That’s a clear indicator of improved efficiency – getting your overheads down.
At the pointy tip of the spear (or the rocket) and the business of going to space and back, NASA’s commercial partnerships have increased from about 9 percent of the yearly budget to 17 percent in the last ten years. That would seem at odds with costs going down, but overall human spaceflight operations have dropped by about 8 percent since the Shuttle program’s end (and that’s before inflation.) It appears “going commercial” reduced NASA space operations costs overall.
Transporter missions are like pesticides SpaceX sprays liberally, wiping out small launchers that might one day become bigger and challengers.
Needless to say, the year to start counting, or to compare, will give different answers. But mostly, these trends will hold. The real question asks, like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, how fast does NASA have to run to stay in place, and how much faster must it go to get ahead?
Across perhaps as many years ahead as looking back here, we will learn if there is a real competitor to SpaceX in medium and heavy launch. Right now, nothing on the near-horizon appears worthy of note, in the US or elsewhere, from Europe to China to India. We see SpaceX rocking even small launch. Falcon 9 “Transporter” missions have removed hundreds of small payloads from the small launcher market. Transporter missions are like pesticides SpaceX sprays liberally, wiping out small launchers that might one day become bigger and challengers. Though Rocket Labs USA remains an ongoing, credible small launch provider, if the only one.
We can imagine a near future where we do know what is in the basket of goods of “launch” reasonably well (if not as soon on the science, satellites, and probes side.) With NASA spending over half of its yearly spaceflight budget just on getting to orbit, where commercial launch goes, so goes NASA’s ability to deflate a major cost. Yet in a chicken and egg dilemma, NASA’s ability to encourage competition, fostering deflation, depends on its budget. The notion of innovation by desperation neglects the desperation needs resources, and latitude.
…the rise of NASA’s public-private partnerships encouraging non-NASA markets tracks with the decline of NASA’s purchasing power and its renewed ambition to go beyond Earth orbit.
Not coincidentally, the rise of NASA’s public-private partnerships encouraging non-NASA markets tracks with the decline of NASA’s purchasing power and its renewed ambition to go beyond Earth orbit. Without launch and space system prices (costs to NASA) dropping, no budget scenarios for NASA to get beyond Earth orbit add up in reasonably relevant timeframes. Yet, as in design, it’s important to distinguish a local minimum, a nice solution, versus the best. So, here’s to this year’s budget increase, providing some breathing room. But now is also a time, even when we have trouble measuring our stops and starts and value and dollars, to recognize time is always a wasting, and those dollars, and we all have a way to go.