Me: "Didn't you hear? NASA's planning to visit an Asteroid."
Steve: "Wait, didn't NASA get shut down after the Space Shuttle?"
Me: (Uh oh, not this conversation again...)
While Steve's facts may be fuzzy, one thing is clear: despite NASA's award-winning social media and web outreach efforts, there are still massive gaps between the public's perception of the agency, and the reality. And unless you are a big space geek like me with daily space Google alerts, it's not unreasonable to be a bit confused.
So why does this matter? For one, 16.8 billion of our tax dollars are funding the agency. Second, NASA is currently up for reauthorization in Congress, and a recent draft bill includes a proposal to cut the agency's funding by $1 billion and redistribute what's left towards some pretty controversial projects -- like sending humans to an asteroid.
But how can we as a nation have an honest dialogue about the future of our space agency and its public value when the conversation has to begin with proving that NASA does still indeed exist? Here are five popular misconceptions about the space agency that are creating noise in NASA's PR signal:
#1. "Wasn't NASA shut down after the Space Shuttle?"
Since the 2011 retirement of the Space Shuttle program, the big white birds have been immortalized in museums across America. Last year, many of us marveled at the decommissioned Shuttle Endeavour piggy backing a Boeing 747 soaring over the Golden Gate Bridge, but the piece of information that slipped through the cracks is that while the Shuttle program may be over, the human spaceflight program still very much exists.
The combination of a costly $450 million per mission, ageing vehicles, and limited capabilities (the Shuttle could only get astronauts to low earth orbit), necessitated retiring the Space Shuttle in order to free up funds towards developing new transport vehicles.
The two programs paving the way for the future are the Commercial Crew Program designed to shuttle astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which when combined with newly designed heavy lift rockets, will be able to take astronauts farther from Earth than ever before - including Mars.
Until these new spacecraft are ready, our astronauts are catching lifts to the International Space Station via the Russian Soyuz vehicle, at $70 million a seat. At that cost, the Space Shuttle replacement can't come soon enough.
It's also worth mentioning that human spaceflight constitutes only 45-50 percent of NASA's budget, meaning that half of the agency is working on unmanned projects ranging from landing rovers on Mars to launching telescopes that are detecting potentially life-friendly Earth-like planets outside of our solar system.
The Word: NASA is still very much alive and kicking!
#2. "NASA is too expensive. How can we justify that kind of spending right now?"
Few will contend with the idea that NASA is a source for inspiration to children and adults alike, and a testament to the technological capabilities of American scientists and engineers. But the reality is, this stuff does cost money. And with the sequester wreaking havoc on all federal programs, these questions are more than pertinent.
Yet before determining if the spending is worth it (as many of us have very strong opinions on), it's essential to first know how money we're actually talking about here.
Public opinion polls show that Americans believe that NASA takes up about 20% of the national budget. However, the overall annual NASA budget is only about 0.5% of U.S. Government spending. That's half a penny of every tax dollar. By comparison, in 2012, the government spent the same amount of money on Farm Subsidies (0.4%) and Agricultural Research (0.1%) as it did on NASA. And these numbers pale in comparison to the real big ticket items -- Defense (24.8%) Social Security (22%), and Healthcare (22.7%).
This is not to downplay the significance and priority of these other programs, nor is it to imply that NASA is cheap. Rather it provides perspective: even if we were to delete the space program altogether, it would hardly make a dent in our budgetary problems. And if history is any judge, we can probably assume those funds wouldn't be redirected to international aid and public education anyway.
The Word: NASA is not free, but it certainly isn't the cause of our financial woes.
#3. "Why are we spending all that money on Space when we could be spending it down here on Earth?"
There are currently no banks or shops in space, so it turns out every dollar NASA spends is spent right here down on Earth. The design, R&D, and manufacture of satellites, rockets, and other space-related technologies--and employing tens of thousands of people to do it--pump billions of dollars into the U.S. economy. Studies estimate a $7-$14 return on investment for every $1 of NASA expenditure, with all of it going directly back into the U.S. Treasury.
Much of NASA's work is conducted at 10 NASA field centers across the country that employ around 57,500 workers. Before the Space Shuttle retirement, the Kennedy Space Center accounted for $4.1 billion of financial activity in the state, and in 2009 Johnson Space Center in Houston generated $2.96 billion in business volume in the state of Texas.
And of course, there are the technologies that NASA R&D and missions have enabled. Tang and Velcro may be the most popularly mentioned ones (though they were not actually invented by NASA), but more impactful ones include water filters, MRI machines, mammography technology, and due to the miniaturization of electronics during the Apollo era, the catalysis of the microelectronics industry. Many people have pulled together lists of technological pull-through from the space program, and NASA publishes an annual publicly available Spinoff magazine that details each year's commercialized technology transfers.
The Word: Every dollar NASA spends is spent here on Earth, and the technological advances from the work often benefit our everyday lives.
#4. "Private space companies are taking over, so why do we need a government space program?"
Perhaps a byproduct of adversarial debates in Congress about the role of government vs. private enterprise, a rather inaccurate narrative of NASA vs. private spaceflight has emerged. There certainly are activities that private companies are capable of doing faster, better, and cheaper than a bureaucracy plagued NASA. With the success of SpaceX's Dragon docking with the International Space Station, April's Orbital Sciences's Antares launch, and Virgin Galactic's triumphant Space Ship Two test flight, there is no doubt that something very special is happening with private spaceflight this time around.
But how private is private, really? Let's take SpaceX as an example (Virgin Galactic is focused primarily on sub-orbital flight for tourism--which is not NASA's ball game). The single biggest customer in the market for these spacecraft is NASA. And in addition to standing on the shoulders of NASA giants, SpaceX is heavily dependent on the US government, having received $440 million in federal subsidies in 2012, and to date, an estimated $911 Million in NASA contracts.
The commercial space industry is not going to replace NASA any time soon. However, if these partnerships work out as all intend, these companies can take over the commercially viable aspects of space exploration like launching and deploying satellites, and other activities in low-earth orbit.
And NASA would be quite happy to give this up to focus on what it does best: the big missions where the main return on investment is not shareholder value, but rather pushing the limits of science, engineering, and discovery. Going to the Sun. Searching for exoplanets. Visiting Saturn's Rings. These missions demand great patience, are full of uncertainty, and require long and difficult project lifetimes that extend beyond the Wall Street fiscal cycles, Congressional elections, and Presidential terms in office.
Will Elon Musk and SpaceX really send humans to Mars? Perhaps--depends on whom you ask. But until these companies scale and the technologies evolve, theirs and NASA's fates will remain interdependent.
The Word: It's not NASA vs. private companies, but rather, NASA in partnership with private companies.
#5. "Isn't NASA a part of the Department of Defense?"
Back during the Cold War, sending NASA astronauts to the moon was primarily a powerplay to show the Soviet Union that we were not to be messed with. But the war is over, and the world has changed. While NASA still does the occasional DARPA funded projects and works closely with contractors who also contract with the Department of Defense (e.g., Lockheed Martin and Boeing make the rockets that launched the Curiosity Rover to Mars), NASA is not a defense organization.
It is a civilian agency, focused on the peaceful exploration and utilization of space.
No other national agency can claim the international cooperation that NASA can: from the latest Mars rovers in which several countries contributed to their design, to the post-war cooperative relationship with the Russians in the tight quarters of the International Space Station, NASA has proven capable of collaborating with nations that our own State Department would be hard pressed to sit comfortably at the table with. NASA understands that the complexities, costs, and geopolitical nature of space exploration require a truly international effort, and that no country is capable of accomplishing these great feats alone.
The Word: NASA is a civilian agency devoted to the peaceful and cooperative exploration of space.
Obviously any number of these topics can be expanded into a more nuanced debate about the purpose of scientific exploration, how government spending and public-private partnerships should work, and what budget allocations ought to be. And the more we, the members of the public, have an understanding of the baseline assumptions, the more prepared we are as a nation to have these conversations.
During the markup of the NASA Reauthorization bill over the next few weeks, lawmakers will determine what NASA will do over the next few years -- and consequently, over the next few decades -- with the money it has been appropriated. And unless the public is informed with a basic starting point in order to provide perspectives that the decision makers will take seriously, Congress, the President, interest groups, and NASA will continue their internal fight over billions of dollars, while the Public's opinion remains quietly off the table.