During the first 6 years of its existence, NASA’s budget increased by an average of 70 percent each year. With the race to the Moon in full swing, NASA’s budget topped out at $37 billion (in FY2011 dollars) in 1965. After falling by 60 percent after the end of the Apollo program, the budget topped out again at $23 billion in FY1991 to support a high level of activity on both the space shuttle and ISS programs. More recently, NASA’s budget has been relatively stable. During the 15-year period from 1997 through 2011, the budget each year has varied by no more than 5 percent from the average value of $18.4 billion (in FY2011 dollars).
Despite the relative stability of NASA’s budget and workforce over the last 15 years, NASA is going through a profound transition:
• From a period of robust space exploration and operations with well-defined and supported objectives to one where there is a clear long-term destination for human exploration (Mars) but a lack of a well-defined national initiative or consensus on the path to get there.
• From a period when the United States had space transportation capabilities second-to-none to a period where the United States must rely on others to launch our astronauts.
• U.S. leadership in space science is being threatened by insufficient budgets to carry out the missions identified in the strategic plans (decadal surveys) of the science communities, while the cost of missions is rising, science budgets are decreasing, and partnerships with the ESA are collapsing—even as other space agencies (most notably ESA) are mounting increasingly ambitious programs.
• From a period where the primary focus of four NASA field centers was on aeronautics research and technology development and where NASA contributed major advances in these areas, benefitting the U.S. economy, quality of life, and national security, to a period where the continued viability of those centers requires financial support from NASA programs or other organizations outside of NASA’s aeronautics program.
• The strategic importance of space is rising and the capabilities of other spacefaring nations are increasing, while U.S. leadership is faltering.
The factors that are driving these transitions and possible corrective action are addressed in Chapter 2.
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