The Costs Of Astronomy

Despite the large amounts of money that some amateurs spend on their hobby, it costs almost nothing for most people who live under dark skies to go outside and enjoy the view. For the professional astronomer, however, costs can be quite significant. While the cost of astronomy is tiny in comparison, for example, to the U.S. military budget, the federal government does spend a significant amount of money on astronomy and astronomical research, and it is reasonable for citizens to wonder whether the investment is worthwhile to society. First, exactly how much is spent on astronomy?

The NASA budget for fiscal year (FY) 2001 was $14.3 billion, out of a total federal discretionary budget of just over $633 billion. Discretionary amounts do not include payments on the federal debt or mandatory entitlement expenditures such as Medicare, welfare, or social security. Only about 2.5 billion of NASA's total budget is spent

Figure 3.3. This view of the Earth from space is a composite of many hundreds of Defense Meteorological Satellites Program (DMSP) images. Note that "light pollution" traces the populated areas of the Earth's surface, with bright points of light marking the planet's great cities. This leaking light brightens the blackness of the night sky and makes the stars, planets, and the Milky Way less visible from much of the Earth's surface. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), based on DMSP data courtesy of Christopher Elvidge, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Geophysical Data Center.

directly or indirectly on astronomy or space science research. The total NASA budget accounts for about 2.3 percent of the federal discretionary budget. A little over 2 percent may not sound like a large number, but it is interesting to note that the NASA budget is one of the larger outlays that the government makes. NASA's budget in FY 2000, $13.6 billion, was much larger than our international assistance program and comparable in size to the same year's outlays for the Department of Agriculture, $15.4 billion. However, while the federal discretionary budget is projected to grow through FY 2005, NASA funding is projected to grow more slowly and will thus represent a smaller share of the overall budget each year. What are the federal dollars spent on NASA supporting?

NASA's budget is typically divided into four major categories: Space Science, Earth Science, Space Transportation Technology, and Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS). In the proposed budget for FY 2001, HEDS is proposed to get the lion's share of the funding, or about $5.5 billion. These dollars support the continuing construction and staffing of the International Space Station (ISS) and the launch and maintenance of the space shuttle program. Space Science, or the support of basic research into the way the universe works (e.g., how stars form, how galaxies evolve), amounts to $2.4 billion.

The other major supporter of basic astronomy research is the National Science Foundation. The proposed level of support for FY 2001 was $4.6 billion. Of this, about half of the funds go to support facilities and efforts in education and training, and the other half goes to support basic research. So astronomy competes with all of the other sciences for the $2 billion or so dollars that go to support basic research from the NSF. The entire National Science Foundation was funded in FY 2000 at the level of $3.9 billion, and a small fraction of those dollars is spent on basic astronomy research. NSF has broadly defined directorates that distribute money to researchers. Within these directorates are divisions responsible for funding specific sciences. The Astronomy (AST) division is located within the Mathematics and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate. MPS gets the largest share of the NSF budget, but the total astronomy budget was only $123 million for FY 2000. The National Science Foundation, for example, is the source offunding for the Very Large Array, the world's premier radio interferometer, which celebrated 20 years of science in 2000.

In all, then, the federal government supports basic research in astronomy at the level of about $2.5 billion. For a comparison, the defense budget for FY 2000 was about $270 billion, so for every dollar that we spend on defense, we spend about a penny on astronomy. What impact does this spending have? Some of the most compelling science news from the past year has been discoveries made with federally funded telescopes or research. The Hubble Space Telescope (part of the NASA budget) continues to produce stunning astronomical discoveries and images. The VLA and the Very Long Baseline Array (both funded and administered as observatories under the National Science Foundation) have produced images and spectra of some of the most distant objects known. The Very Long Baseline Array in addition has provided data that challenges the distance scale in the universe as proposed by results from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The ongoing exploration of the solar system, funded by NASA, continues to amaze people the world over. Discoveries from the Galileo mission to Jupiter and its moons, the discovery of water on the moon as a result of the Lunar Prospector mission, the high-resolution imaging of the surface of Mars by Mars Global Surveyor—these are discoveries that are at the very edge of human capability. The discoveries made by these missions have a lasting effect on our collective psyche and continue the tradition of astronomers confronting society again and again with new knowledge and new perspectives on our place in the world. While there have been notable failures (see Chapter 1), NASA's new "Faster, Better, Cheaper" approach has produced some great successes. The idea recently has been to fund a larger number of less expensive missions, with the understanding that each mission might produce a smaller number of results. And the failure of a single mission, when so many are planned, would not have a catastrophic effect on the overall program.

Finally, we touch on the topic of the interaction between military technology and astronomy. From the beginning, technology that has been attractive to astronomers has also been attractive to military leaders. Telescopes that could see ships at great distances (as Galileo demonstrated to the political and military leaders of Venice in the first decade of the seventeenth century) were also able to produce magnified images of the surfaces of the moon and planets. Radar installations that can reflect radio waves offenemy aircraft can be modified to detect faint radio waves from space. And sensitive infrared detectors that can pinpoint the emission from young protostars can also be used to lock onto the emission from the exhaust of a military aircraft. Clearly, astronomers do not have the first go at these technologies as they come on line, but the same companies that build the nation's national defense infrastructure (e.g., Lockheed, Ball Aerospace) are also some of the primary bidders for large federally funded astronomical projects. These companies that have the greatest level of experience in building and launching military satellites surely enjoy a competitive advantage when building an orbiting telescope.

Perhaps one of the main beneficial social impacts of astronomy is to take technologies that may have been developed for other purposes and use them to discover more about our universe. So we return to where we began. The desire of rulers to predict the future through an accurate knowledge of planetary positions (astrology) and accurately to keep time for business and agriculture in ancient times apparently led to careful record keeping about the relative positions of objects in the skies and the origin of astronomy. The government's current desire to maintain a strong defense has in some cases made valuable new technology available to astronomers who are able to put the technology to alternative, more peaceful, and more significant uses.

Astronomers are often faced with the task of justifying what they do. If most people are asked what practical benefits society has gained from astronomy, they are likely to think of examples from the space program. Certainly, the computing- and technology-intensive requirements of the space program in the 1960s are related to the explosion in these areas during that decade and ever since. But most citizens would be hard-pressed to come up with practical benefits of basic astronomical research, explorations into how stars form, how galaxies evolve, or what is the source of intense sources of gamma ray emission called gamma ray bursters. Astronomers are increasingly aware of the need to clearly communicate their findings to the society that often pays the bill.


Andersen, J. "Astronomy and the Degrading Environment." Science, 288 (2000):443. Herrnstein, J.R.; Moran, J.M.; Greenhill, L.J.; Diamond, P.J.; Inoue, M.; Nakai, N.; Miyoshi, M.; Henkel, C.; and Riess, A. "A Geometric Distance to the Galaxy NGC 4258 from Orbital Motions in a Nuclear Gas Disk." Nature, 400 (1999): 539-541.

King, T.J. "Squirrel Haven May Reopen." Eastern Arizona Courier, May 24, 2000. "The Mt. Graham Red Squirrel," (May 2002)

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