Space Data Insights: NASA Budget, 1959-2020

[Insights is a new series by the Space Foundation’s Research & Analysis (R&A) team to share the details that data reveals about today’s space environment.]

Milestone events for the U.S. space program within the last few weeks have proven the accomplishments of the past decade and the promise of expected achievements in the new decade.

On Sunday, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket successfully completed the final major flight test to participate in NASA’s commercial crew transport program to the International Space Station (ISS). The test comes less than a month after the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s uncrewed spacecraft launch. Though the Starliner did not successfully match orbit with the ISS, it met several other mission objectives for the commercial crew program.

And on Jan. 10, NASA graduated 11 new astronauts, the first since the agency announced the Artemis program, intended to return humans to the moon by 2024.

These accomplishments accompany two significant legislative actions for U.S. space programs. On December 20, 2019, President Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which officially created the United States Space Force. Also authorized: a spending package to kickstart the Artemis program.

Despite the ambitious plan to return to the moon, a closer look at NASA’s budget shows its funding as a percentage of the total budget is not keeping a similar pace.

NASA’s 2020 appropriations represent 0.48% of the year’s planned total federal budget. When compared to inflation-adjusted budgets since 1959, the 2020 allocation is lower than other peak development periods in the space program’s history. As a percentage of the total budget, the latest NASA budget ties as one of the lowest funding years ever – lower even than during the boiling point of the financial crisis in 2008.

The Aeronautics and Space Report of the President provides actualized figures for NASA spending through 2018. According to the 2018 report, over 27% of all NASA spending occurred in the Apollo era (1963-1975), the peak in 1965 being almost $32 billion when adjusted for inflation in 2018. Total government budget figures from USASpending.govindicate that an average of 2.5% of the federal budget went to NASA in this period, exceeding 4% in 1964 and 1965.

Since Apollo’s conclusion, federal funding for NASA has averaged just 0.7% of total government spending, exceeding 1% only three times – each by a margin of a few hundredths of a decimal point. Inflation-adjusted figures do not paint a kinder picture of NASA allocations in the post-Apollo era, averaging $3 billion less between 1976 and 2018.



NASA supporters say that to reach the aspirations of the Artemis program in the intended time frame, NASA’s funding will need to more closely reflect that of the Apollo era: constituting a substantial share of federal government spending, and not just meeting inflation-adjusted funding levels from Apollo but exceeding them.

The 2020 appropriation for NASA amounts to $22.629 billion —constituting 0.48% of the $4.75 trillion budgeted for 2020.The president additionally authorized $40 million for the creation of the Space Force. NASA leadership estimated the Artemis program to cost between $20 and $30 billion.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine categorized current funding levels as the “low end” of what’s needed for 2020, and in December, he and Doug Loverro, the new NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, acknowledged NASA would have to find creative ways to maintain momentum despite funding constraints not only in 2020 but in future years as well.