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Gregory and Jones: NASA Could Do Great Things With More Funds

For more than 50 years, America’s inspiring strides in space exploration earned the respect of adversaries and allies alike. The Apollo missions launched explorers to the moon. The space shuttle flights united 15 nations to build the International Space Station. Today’s robotic explorers travel the solar system unlocking planetary secrets.

Decades of U.S. space successes have paid big dividends — remarkable technological advances that have boosted the American economy, strengthened national security, enriched our lives and created opportunities for all.

Now our next-generation space exploration goals are threatened. For the past 20 years, NASA’s budget has remained static or declined, slowing our exploration pace to a crawl. The 2013 NASA spending plan submitted to Congress totals $17.7 billion — less than half of 1 percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget.

This means that less than half of a penny of each dollar the government spends goes toward American space programs. By comparison, we spend almost 10 times as much on the Department of Agriculture and 40 times as much on national defense in a federal budget that is increasingly dominated by commitments to Medicare, Social Security and other entitlements.

It’s time to dream big, recommit and reinvest by gradually doubling NASA’s budget to $35 billion, or 1 percent of the federal budget.

It’s a proposal that is gaining popularity, thanks in part to Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium. During his testimony earlier this year to the Senate Commerce Committee, he described how doubling NASA’s budget would pay big dividends.

“Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth, because doing what’s never been done before is intellectually seductive and innovation follows, just as day follows night,” said Tyson, who often serves on White House advisory panels.

In 1966, with the moon landings still an uncertainty, the nation mired in an unpopular war and confronting civil unrest, our policymakers found NASA worthy of a 4.4 percent share of the federal budget. NASA spending fell below 1 percent in 1993 and has steadily declined since.

Should we stay on this present course, the United States will soon be outpaced by other countries. Russia, India and Brazil have embraced 20 percent increases, according to the Space Report 2012, an annual assessment of the global space economy from the Space Foundation. Both China and Russia are planning for an eventual human presence on the moon and a larger share of a growing global space economy, estimated by the foundation in 2011 at $289.8 billion.

We must reverse that trend. Our policymakers must renew the bipartisan tradition of supporting an ambitious space enterprise that will spur a bright future for the nation. They must set clear goals and stick by them. They must enlighten constituents on the many benefits that justify the appropriate investments we now seem too hesitant to make, even as they address the other pressing issues that have divided us for much too long.

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