Space. The final frontier. We all love it. Gravity, a beautiful sci-fi disaster movie set in space is killing it at the box office, pictures from Curiosity — NASA’s Mars rover — become high-traffic Internet gold when they’re beamed back to earth and when NASA’s website went dark during the government shutdown, a group of Russian net-pirates offered to pay for its upkeep.

With that kind of international support and pop culture cache, NASA must be a well funded branch of the federal government, right?

In 2012 the federal government’s budget was set at $3,537 billion. NASA’s cut of this massive pool was $17.8 billion, or 0.5 of one percent of the total, an insignificant amount of cash when compared to the total weight of spending.

But there’s hope. A new study from the University of Houston suggests that just by us telling people how small that budget is, they are more likely to support an increase of said budget. The Space Review, which first picked up the study, named it the Neil deGrasse Tyson Effect after the popular astrophysicist.

Tyson is a media darling who has used his celebrity to spread the word of NASA’s lack of funding. He’s sat with Stephen Colbert, taken the blame for removing Pluto from the list of planets and is set to revive Carl Sagan’s old space TV show Cosmos. If anyone can lead the charge for a better funded NASA, it’s him.

But budget woes are just one facet of the problems with NASA, and it’s going to take more than a charismatic front man to fix it.

The International Space Station. NASA photo

Testing the effect

According to The Space Review, the students were asked to guesstimate whether the government spends too much, too little or just enough on NASA. “Initially, 84 respondents felt that spending was too much, 219 about right, and 126 not enough,” The Space Review’s Alan Steinberg wrote.

Subjects were then asked to identify NASA’s budget as a percentage of the federal budget. . . .In the initial round of assessment, 294 respondents (68.4 percent) overestimated NASA’s budget as a percent of the federal budget by at least double the actual value, of which 224 respondents (52.1 percent) overestimated NASA’s actual budget by at least tenfold.

After the initial round of questions, the participants were let in on the truth via a quote from Tyson: “NASA’s budget is currently 0.6 percent of the federal budget, i.e., about half a penny per tax dollar.” The participants were then asked the same questions as before, and the results changed, showing a marked increase in support for additional funding by about 29 percent.

“This suggests that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s space evangelism works, but perhaps that the message has just not yet reached a sufficient amount of people,” Steinberg wrote.

Then Tyson himself — labeled a space evangelist by Steinberg — commented on the piece. Tyson wrote:

Evangelists, as we have come to think of them, go out of their way to preach, even to (especially to) disinterested parties. But that’s something I have never done. Not ever. I've not posted any of the countless YouTube videos of me talking about NASA. And every talk or speech I've ever given on the subject — including congressional testimony — came about because organizers asked me to do so, not because I solicited their interest.
Look at the utterly ballistic reaction to my dozen tweets on the physics errors in the film “Gravity.” Not only were they referenced heavily in the blogosphere and in news feeds, they achieved the NBC trifecta of being referenced on the TODAY Show, Brian Williams’s NBC Nightly News, and in “Weekend Update” on SNL. That cannot happen unless somebody is paying attention — unless somebody in charge cares about space.

People do care about space. We’re fascinated by it. But what the hell are we doing there?

SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. Via Wikimedia Commons

Tyson is not enough

NASA’s problems are more than just budgetary, they’re existential.

The American space program once has a grand purpose: to go to the Moon. Why? Because it was there, because we could and because it let us beat the Soviet Union. Now — despite the cultural fascination with all things space — no one is really sure what the point of NASA is.

The private space industry has helped. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo took to its first test flight in April 2013. The Pentagon is still investing in space, notably with secretive robotic space planes. But the overall space effort is at risk of becoming adrift.

“I think what you’re seeing in the current debate over priorities really is the residual of 40 years of a failure to reach consensus on what the U.S. should be doing in space and particularly in human spaceflight,” John Logsdon of the Space Policy Institute told reporters in August.

Part of the problem, Longsdon said, is the divide over whether to invest in exploration or maintaining the International Space Station at a cost of $3 billion per year — and what the future will be after the ISS retires in the 2020s.

“What’s missing is a sense of strategy, of strategic purpose for the organization—what should it be doing. That is the job of a national leader—is enunciating for NASA as well as other government agencies what it’s for, what its long-term and even midterm strategic purposes in terms of the national interest ought to be,” he added.

NASA needs a mission. A big, crazy, aspirational mission that captures the imagination of the American people. Without that, it doesn't matter how aware people are of NASA being underfunded.

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