Tuesday marks a significant event for the US military. The first F-35 Lightning II, the product of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program that started in 1996, will be placed into service after an inauguration ceremony at a Marine Corps Air Station in Arizona. This will be the first of sixteen F-35s assigned to a newly minted Marine fighter squadron, scheduled to be in full operation next year.
Of course, these new fifth-generation fighters are not cheap; each costing around $240 million. These pricey jets, combined with the Department of Defense’s estimated half of a billion dollars in facility upgrades to house these planes, bring the total cost of this new Marine squadron to $40 billion.
The estimated $1 trillion cost of the JSF program dwarfs that of NASA’s $25 billion Apollo program. Yet, despite NASA’s historical successes and technological breakthroughs, its budget will face another round of crippling cuts next year that is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
These cuts are now becoming a trend for the White House based on recent fiscal budget proposals sent to Congress. To put this into context, consider the White House’s 2010 NASA budget proposal of $18.69 billion versus 2013’s proposal of $17.7 billion. This is in spite of the US government’s plan to spend tens of billions of dollars next year on more JSF aircraft, which have been riddled with safety issues and costly production delays for over a decade.
These staggering cuts have affected the US space agency significantly, with the most notable impact being the cancellation of all future “flagship” missions that were planned to explore various destinations within our solar system. The cancelled programs included a trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is theorized to have vast oceans beneath its icy surface — the key component to finding life outside our planet.
Another major change will be the shrinking of the Mars exploration program, which NASA’s administrator Charles Bolden said will force a “recalibrating [of] our Mars science program.”
However, the bad news for NASA may not end with the cuts from the White House. It will have an even more miniscule budget if we fall off the fiscal cliff come January. This is according to the sequestration bill that is set to trigger $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts if congress and the president do not reach an agreement by January 2. If the sequester goes into effect, NASA will immediately lose another $1.3 billion in funding.
Fortunately, the government contractor, Lockheed Martin, will have no such worries come January’s fiscal crisis, because their scheduled production of F-35s next year has already been paid in advance, even though recent reports from government officials indicate continuing delays in their production until 2019.
This should not concern the public because the F-35 has yet to find an enemy, or purpose, beyond the role-playing war games it is scheduled to participate in during the early part of 2013. It is just unfortunate that these war games cannot provide the hundreds of billions of dollars in profits that NASA has consistently provided the US for over 50 years, thus illustrating the absurdity of Washington’s economic plan which subsequently sinks the prospects of space exploration along the way.
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Um, let's try to be a little more fair even if it doesn't change your overall thesis. First, at least a couple of sources place the Apollo program cost at $25.4B in 1973 dollars. That's ~ $132B today if you run it through a standard inflation calculator. Second, NASA has blown many, many $ billions over the past few decades on failed launch vehicle development efforts. While I'm a fan of NASA, one could reasonably argue NASA's budget could be cut substantially without affecting their core missions via better leverage of private launchers.
More importantly, it is naive to assume either (1) the F-35 has no purpose and (2) defense spending produces no profits from derivative civilian applications. It's not worth debating the former in this forum but the latter is easy. I'd bet of the myriad of innovations produced by the defense department, profits produced by GPS and the Internet probably dwarf any NASA innovation by several orders of magnitude. The difference is no one likes to tout the DoD's case like NASA's.
In order to give some clarity on commercial space programs in the US, like SpaceX, they too will suffer from any cuts to NASA. Currently, most commercial programs are cogs on the NASA wheel. Now, some congressional logic -- typically the conservative arguments -- is that if government does not provide the product, a commercial company will come in and provide whilst doing it better & more efficiently.
However, this does not seem to be the case for commercial space companies. Most of their employees are former NASA officials. Secondly, NASA owns the patents to a lot of the tech it takes to make space flight/exploration possible.
Now, this does not mean that commercial space programs cannot one day transform into being Fortune 500 profiteers, however, it’s going to take a long time, a lot of risk, and a bunch of cash to get there.
But, there is actually a lot of room for private sector growth in space; it’s just a matter of these big risks with proper government coordination to get something like this in the works. For example, space elevators, asteroid mining, and private trips into Earth's orbit seem to be profitable ventures we could potentially see in the next 50 years. But, this does not mean that NASA should be slashed and burned in the meantime whilst we pay hundreds of billions of dollars for stealthy fighter jets that have nobody to fight.
Just imagine this: if over the 50+ year lifetime of NASA's budget (currently sitting at approximately $500 billion dollars with inflation) we had doubled it to $1 trillion, which is estimated cost of the JSF, could we have already put a man on Mars? Found microbial life on Europa? Or exploited the rare and rich materials on asteroids nearby?
I don't know. But its food for thought, no?
Meanwhile, the Chinese and Indians are making plans to go to the Moon, and the ESA is recruiting the Russians to take NASA's place on joint projects they can't afford to participate in any more. Thankfully, we have companies like SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and others trying to pick up the slack on the commercial side, but it's sad that our government places such a low priority on supporting the development of such a cutting-edge field and making inroads into what will probably one day be a huge sector of the economy.
Old time aerospace,
Thank you for your response and critique, for your counter-arguments are fair and balanced statements. Yes, the one constant criticism for my piece thus far has been that the ‘inflation’ cost of the Apollo Program is $132 billion dollars – and this is true. However, when I was making my comparison between the JSF and Apollo Program, I was also not taking inflation cost into consideration for the JSF either. And, in all actuality, the JSF program cost mentioned above are not including the development of the F-22 Raptor: which is essentially a modified JSF and this was a program that started back into the 80s.
In other words, the critique for Apollo’s cost is valid but it is inductively weak because the JSF and Apollo cost comparison was compared with the same barometer – both lacking inflation gains (with a significantly conservative estimates for the cost of the JSF). But we can also take it a bit further, for the Apollo program (for example) has generated billions of dollars in revenue, whereas the JSF has delivered $0 in profits. Maybe if the government owned the rights to the jet, and we could sell them to our allies, we could find profits down the road. But Lockheed Martin owns the patents, not the US, so Lockheed will be the profiteer not the taxpayers.
On the purpose of the F-35, it has a purpose: replace completely functional, next-gen aircraft that already dominate any of its contemporaries. Also, we are fighting a war on terrorists? Yet there are no terrorists, or even countries for that matter, in the greater Middle East with an air force or defense systems that could hold a candle to even now antiquated US technology from the 1980s – much less our capabilities in the 21st century.
In regards to defense spending equaling profits, this is absolutely true. Especially true when we consider the innovation that DARPA has brought forth for this country. However, this is a fallacious point, for it is a red herring to bring up research/technology gains when we are discussing a fighter jet, the F-35, that has one notable advantage over the F-22, which is that it can take off vertically. Thus proving the point that any cuts to NASA, DARPA, etc. are shameful if we marry these cuts with ludicrous spending on a fighter jet program that has yet to do anything sensational and will face production delays (because of safety problems) for another several years.
For a fraction of the cost (even with inflation), Apollo was able to put many boots on the moon, whereas the F-35 is struggling to even get up in the air.
"...but it’s sad that our government places such a low priority on supporting the development of such a cutting-edge field and making inroads into what will probably one day be a huge sector of the economy." A substantial sum (granted, not all of the funds) was provided by the government for the programs of SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Orbital, et al.
Also pens that write upside down. Investing in science and exploration likely has intangible benefits as well as more Americans are excited about science.
This is a very short sighted by both houses and the President. The NASA budget accounts for less than 1% of the federal budget. This is about the same amount of theft and fraud that occurs from soc security and medicare in one week.
We need to expand our exploration of the universe, it is the key to a better life for every man woman and child on this planet.
Correct, but that's mostly low-earth orbit stuff that we've been doing for decades. I think newspace companies will eventually move beyond that, but it would be nice to see NASA itself break some new ground since they have all the experience. They can't do that if congress keeps cutting their funding and scrapping their plans every few years.
I would love to see your source on that comment about the NASA budget equals amount of theft and fraud from soc security and medicare in one week. Not that I don't believe you or anything but when you roam a comments section on the internet one has to be careful what to believe and what not to believe, plus it would be great to use that source in future conversations with people who don't believe that spending in NASA is a good idea.
Nasa get's 17,7 billion per year. X52, that's 930 billion a year, and the Federal government budgets around 1300 billion for Medicare and Social Security. So Richard's dealing with the "fact" that 2/3 of spending on the elderly is "theft and fraud.". That's a large enough fraction that he's probably not using "theft and fraud" as most folks would use those words.
I second Alejandro! It's great to know things like this and I'd like to mention this in future conversations, but sources are important. Especially when people can get very contentious over the internet.