The year was 1961. It was the height of the Cold War, with the United States locked in a political, economic and scientific battle with the Soviet Union.
Our Red rivals launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957, using essentially an intercontinental ballistic missile as its propulsion method. Fear fell over our nation after the realization that we were not as untouchable as we had previously thought.
This fear gave birth to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the United States began its own journey to the stars.
The National Defense Education Act was passed in 1958 as a response to Sputnik as well, pouring massive amounts of funding into the educational system to cultivate the next generation of scientists and engineers in order to surpass the Soviets.
On May 25, just six weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and told the American people, with great conviction: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Kennedy knew this would not be an easy feat, and certainly not an inexpensive one.
“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” he said.
But the American people were behind it, nonetheless. Money was no object, if it meant the United States taking the lead in the “Space Race,” and therefore the Cold War.
Eight years and $24 billion later, astronaut Neil Armstrong took his famous “small step” on July 20, 1969, becoming the first human to ever step foot on the moon and tacking up another point for the U.S. on the Cold War scoreboard.
Unfortunately, JFK was wrong about one thing: the moon being important for the long-range exploration of space.
Yes, the moon was the first steppingstone on our path to explore the vast expanse of the universe, but we have fallen flat on our face since then.
With proper funding and a deeply embedded ideological war at hand as motivation, we accomplished a remarkable feat in an astonishing amount of time. Once we “won,” however, and the Soviets were no longer our mortal enemies, the space program suffered drastically.
At its peak in 1965, and largely as a response to JFK’s compelling speech, NASA’s budget was nearing 4.5 percent of the total federal budget. The initial funding slowly declined to about 1 percent in 1975, holding steady until 1993.
With America now becoming involved in wars in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe, NASA’s budget fell further, now at a crippling .5 percent.
Let that sink in. The budget for the United States’ entire space program is one-half of a penny for every tax dollar. Every shuttle, astronaut, telescope, rover and mission is funded by this small sliver.
As of 2011, the American space shuttle program has been retired. Our astronauts now have to hitch a ride with (our formal rival) Russia in order to travel to the International Space Station.
In September, Space Shuttle Endeavour took its final journey — but not to space. The shuttle was flown across the country on the back of a heavily modified Boeing 747, eventually reaching its destination in Los Angeles.
It was an odd sight for many, seeing a space shuttle being transported through the streets of an urban city. For a moment, we were reminded of the excitement and glory that space exploration offers. But it was too little, too late, as the shuttle was taken to its final resting place at the California Science Center.
The Curiosity Rover, which landed on Mars just a few months ago, ran up a bill of merely $2.5 billion. In comparison, the 2012 London Olympics cost $15 billion.
Think about it: We sent a Mini Cooper-sized exploration robot to the surface of another planet for just one-sixth the cost of a competition that used remote-controlled Mini Coopers to retrieve discuses and javelins. The swimsuit that Michael Phelps wore in the Games was a byproduct of NASA research.
A tax increase is not the solution however, but reallocation could certainly help this embarrassing lack of funding.
The Department of Defense budget for 2012 is more than 38 times higher than that allotted for NASA. The total cost of the wars in the Middle East has reached a staggering $3.7 trillion, and continues to climb.
The problem is not that we cannot afford it; it is that we do not want to. Our national priorities have shifted and become warped. We are more focused on policing the world than we are about reaching the stars.
At this rate, a manned Mars landing is a feeble dream, likely still another two or three decades away. And then what?
Americans have lost their sense of the bigger picture. Not at the national scale, or even the international – the universal picture.
In the words of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “How much would you pay for the universe?”
But the pursuit of space is not simply science for science’s sake. Countless everyday items have been conceived as a result of space program research and development.
Freeze-dried food and water filters to cordless power tools and satellite television are all modern-day products that have either been invented, improved upon, or made possible by the efforts of humans to dip our toes in the cosmic waters.
Perhaps the most important contribution NASA has made to the modern world is the computer. Computers existed before the Apollo missions, but they were the size of entire rooms. Even the computer on board Apollo 11, the mission that landed a man on the moon, was incredibly simple by today’s standards – the iPhone in your pocket is unfathomably more powerful and complex.
Huge advancements have been made to medical technology as well, thanks to NASA research, including breast-cancer screening, MRI and CAT scans, artificial limbs from robotics experimentation, and even dialysis.
Memory-foam mattresses, GPS technology and car tires are all products of the space industry, too.
But more importantly, space gives us hope. Space gives us imagination. Space gives us a desire to push the boundaries of the human will, spirit and mind to a level never thought possible.
But without the necessary funding, the dreams of building a colony on Mars are fading fast. The inspiration for children to become scientists, engineers and astronauts is all but gone without a national interest in the exploration of space. This is not only detrimental to the goal of astronomy, but hurts nearly all facets of American industry.
Imagine the impact that simply doubling NASA’s budget – to one penny on the dollar – would have on our economy, our world and our human spirit.
Many say that we can’t afford to invest in space exploration. I say we can’t afford not to.
This piece was inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book “Space Chronicles.” Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium. For more information on this topic, visit penny4nasa.org or use #penny4NASA on Twitter.