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Kid's quest: Does NASA need to be saved?

6:55 PM, Dec 12, 2013   |    comments
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KUSA - A local 6-year-old's campaign to save NASA has gotten him a lot of attention, including a phone call from an actual astronaut on Wednesday.

But Connor Johnson's petition to the White House begs the question: does the space agency need saving?

Connor's petition specifically calls for an increase in funding for NASA.

His campaign is unquestionably adorable, but we wanted to provide some context so you can decide how to feel about the issue he's raised.

Budgets are all about priorities and people have wildly differing views of where a space program fits into all the things the federal government pays for.

In 2013, the NASA budget was $17.7 billion, which is more money than most of us can imagine.

To give you some perspective, here's what the US spent on some other notable programs.

• US Forest Service: $5.5 billion (less than 1/3 of NASA)
• Foreign aid: $54.8 billion (3X NASA)
• Food stamps: $87.3 billion (almost 5X NASA)
• Defense department: $527.5 billion (almost 30X NASA)

There's another way of looking at it: NASA as a percentage of all US government spending.

At its peak, in the run-up to the Apollo 11 lunar landing, NASA took a little less than 4.5 cents of every dollar the government spent.

After the Apollo program, that share of federal dropped like a spent booster rocket.

The agency now gets half of a penny for every dollar of federal spending.

You can find a detailed analysis of NASA spending over time by the Guardian, note that the figures from 2013 on have been reduced in NASA's actual budget.

Connor has adults making his same argument.

"The half a penny budget NASA receives, if you double it," said astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson at a recent Senate hearing, "as unthinkable that is to so many, I assert that we can transform the country."

But NASA is in a new era. Its space shuttles are now museum pieces.

The agency relies on private companies now to do things like run supplies to the International Space Station.

"You know we've always had private and NASA combined. Eighty percent of NASA's budget has always gone out to industry," said Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator, speaking about the launch of the SpaceX Dragon.

Garver made the case that leaving routine space missions to the private sector frees up money to do other things.

"So we can spend our dollars doing things like mars curiosity that we've never done before," Garver said.

The agency is working with companies, including some in Colorado, on the next manned spacecraft.

People like Connor have their eye on a more expensive goal: putting people on Mars.

Not everyone shares that dream, but Connor has us talking about it.

Which is also more than a lot of grown-ups can say.

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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