Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Alternate funding method for NASA

What if we do something completely radical? Instead of bickering endlessly over NASA's budget every year, let's assign them a set of priorities (much like we already do) and then fund them for the next ten years. Set aside $225 billion (covering the current budget level plus a hefty increase for expanded programs, growing at 4% per year for the next 10 years) in an interest-bearing account. Now there is no budget uncertainty at all and NASA can do longer-term planning without risking a funding cut halfway through an expensive project. This will save money in the long run since less will be wasted on pivots or on research into projects that get canceled. If the agency saves money in a given year they will have more money available in a later year automatically.

10-year treasury bonds are going for about 1.5% right now, for an overall cost of $261.12 billion or total financing costs of $36.12 billion. We would have the option of paying or not paying into that debt over the next ten years, then the option of paying it off or rolling it into new bonds. We would also get to decide at that point whether to do another 10-year funding run or go back to traditional budgeting.

 Obviously accountability is a concern, so there would still be a need for an annual budget, annual review and a report to Congress on activities and progress so far. On the other hand, congresscritters and Presidents won't be able to pull course-changing publicity stunts or divert funding to their pet companies. As a check against too much individual power, the administrator could still be fired and replaced if they are running off the rails.


  1. Ooooh brilliant! They will never do it because fa... I mean making a (less un)balanced yearly budget is more important at the moment, but I love the idea.
    Mind if I steal for a SF story some day? That could be useful!

    1. Be my guest. I can't be the first person to come up with the idea, so no guarantee of originality.

      It might even be worth pushing for an endowment or trust model. Any technologies that are spun off into the private sector would include a nonvoting ownership percentage; success of these technologies would feed a little bit back into the budget.

      If it were up to me I would have the agency focus on infrastructure that supports other research and engineering efforts, then recoup some of the cost in the form of facility fees. The emphasis would be on partnerships with other research organizations and private entities to leverage NASA's unique expertise on topics like supersonic flight or radiation protection or extraterrestrial sample collection. This is already the way things work to some extent, but I believe manned spaceflight absorbs a lot of attention and funding that could be better spent on filling the many knowledge gaps. This plus an unmanned exploration budget considerably above current levels would be my ideal baseline NASA. (I also think mass / volume / power should be for sale or trade on NASA probes to other agencies and private entities.)

      That's not to say manned exploration is out, just that it should be treated as its own goal with its own budget. If a manned Mars program is running way over budget that shouldn't kill the next round of probe missions or threaten research centers. What I'm saying is that even if manned spaceflight becomes commonplace, there will still be needs that can best be met by probes and there will still be demand for space-specific testing, engineering support and basic research. These tasks are baseload and are worth the investment whether or not we pursue manned exploration.

  2. How would you pork up this sort of budget? It's not going to happen!

    1. I'd answer that congress would always be welcome to make budgetary awards for specific programs. If they want a mission to happen that isn't in NASA's plan (looking at you, Europa lander) then they can certainly vote to appropriate funds and direct NASA to do their mission anyway. They just can't direct NASA to do the mission using NASA's bonded funds since those are already appropriated for a specific purpose. Congress could leave themselves some room by leaving a portion of the bonded funds for later allocation, but then all involved are aware in advance that those funds will be spent mainly for political reasons.

      One way of looking at NASA is as a jobs program for maintaining STEM readiness. It produces scientific discovery, technological advancement and national prestige as byproducts of keeping rocket scientists and other experts employed in the USA instead of, say, North Korea. Individual senators and representatives are generally a selfish lot (the better ones are selfish about what benefits their constituents, which is their job). They won't vote for a program like this unless it benefits the people they represent in a concrete way, which is why the current program includes lots of earmarks for specific states.

      This is not an efficient way to run a space program, but NASA isn't fundamentally a space program. It achieves exactly what it is intended to achieve and very effectively. By switching to a bond-funded or trust-funded model without otherwise changing how the game is played we allow the many little fiefdoms to consume a piece of the pie the way they already do, at least initially.
      The benefit is in stability; a new president or a new congress wouldn't necessarily spell the death of some project halfway through, which means a sitting representative might vote yes so their pet project becomes more firmly entrenched. A second advantage is that pointless projects can be canceled as soon as it becomes obvious that they are money pits rather than keeping them running so representative A votes yes on next year's budget; this would seem to counteract the first benefit but most people think their personal project is worthy and will think instead about their enemies and how their pointless and wasteful pet pork could get the axe.
      Over the long term, individual representatives would lose their power over the program and some measure of competitive efficiency could be reintroduced to the agency. It would become a ten-year cycle rather than an annual cycle of arguments and negotiations. Change would be slow but inexorable.

      I would ask this:
      Are we satisfied with what we are getting for the $1.3 trillion cost of the F-35 fighter program over 45 years?
      Would we be more satisfied if that money would go to roughly the same companies (no net change in jobs) but result in permanently manned outposts on the Moon and Mars plus a robust orbital industrial base of asteroid mining over the same timeframe?
      I know I prefer progress to bloodshed. Space exploration has historically been a tool of diplomacy and peace-making. It had its saber-rattling undertones but ultimately the ISS brought the USA and Russia closer together. Perhaps we should be offering the rest of the world a leg up into space instead of building machines to bomb the hell out of them.

      The F-35 is a single military procurement program with nearly 70 years of NASA's budget. The initial design phase for that aircraft's replacement has already begun. We're also spending for a new strategic bomber, new cruisers, new frigates, new jeeps, new ground attack aircraft, new railguns, new drones across the size scale, new infantry-support robots, etc., etc.