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As the name suggests, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is a United States government agency whose "core mission from the very beginning has been to investigate, explore space and the Earth environment, and to help us make this place a better place," according to current NASA Director Maj. Gen. Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., (USMC-Ret.) NASA's Vision: "We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind."
What it doesn't do
Contrary to popular misconceptions:
- NASA doesn't do astronomy, unless the observatory is on a plane (SOFIA) or in space (Hubble, Spitzer, etc.); even then, most of the people that actually use these instruments are professional astronomers who don't work for NASA (Hubble, for example, is used through the Space Telescope Science Institute).
- NASA doesn't have a monopoly on space flight within the United States:
- the Air Force has its own space projects (e.g. the X-37B) and launchpads; NASA's shuttles have launched some spy satellites, but it turned out that launching them with disposable rockets is cheaper.
- commercial satellites are not launched by NASA, but by private contractors (such as SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Boeing (who have joined together as the United Launch Alliance) and Orbital Sciences Corporation); the same people provide launch services to NASA and other government agencies (such as launching meteosats for NOAA and spysats for the NRO).
- NASA doesn't have a monopoly on space flight outside of the US:
- Sending people into space is not the primary purpose, nor the primary activity of NASA. (Voyager 1 says, "Hi.")
- Contrary to the popular (in some circles) slogan "NASA lies!", the most significant things NASA has been untruthful about are:
- how much money a particular project will cost, and
- how much time it will take to develop it.
Well, the last point is mostly snark, but based on a kernel of truth: NASA's projects often end up over budget and/or behind schedule (recent examples are the Constellation program and the James Webb Space Telescope), but so do defense programs and even relatively mundane civil engineering projects.
NASA takes its directions from the President and its money from Congress. This sometimes leads to some interesting deals and compromises (and messed-up projects, including the current state of the human spaceflight program). A good illustration is the fact that NASA's budget for fiscal year 2013 was approved in... August 2013, one month before the end of FY 2013. If you are wondering how the goat NASA functioned in the meantime, the answer is "continuing resolutions." As of 2015, the chair of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness is noted global warming denier Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has complained about NASA focusing too much on climate.
Space exploration spending
A lot of people think (or at least have expressed the opinion) that a lot of money is spent on space exploration and could be better spent elsewhere. In the case of NASA, this is undermined by the fact that a) nowadays, NASA's budget is less than 1% of the federal budget, and b) the average American has no idea how small NASA's budget actually is. According to a 2007 survey:
“”...we asked respondents what percentage of the national budget is allocated to NASA and to the Department of Defense, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Health and Human Services, among other agencies. NASA’s allocation, on average, was estimated to be approximately 24% of the national budget (the NASA allocation in 2007 was approximately 0.58% of the budget).
On the other hand, NASA's most recent project, the SLS, or Space Launch System, has repeatedly been criticized, and blasted, and criticized some more, for being too expensive. Critics say that SpaceX can launch for significantly less. Though that may or may not be true, Elon Musk took a not-so-subtle jab at it, saying that it "won't change humanity's future".
And no, NASA did not spend millions of taxpayer dollars developing space pens.
- Months before Apollo 11, NASA had seriously considered placing a UN and not an American flag on the moon. (Imagine the shift in political narratives.) Of course, the flag on the moon has been bleached white by intense solar radiation, so presumably that means they've surrendered the moon anyway. Hey, "These colors don't run!"
- House Committee on Science, Space and Technology
- TLC, which was co-founded by NASA as the Appalachian Community Service Network (yes, really...)
- Space travel hoax
- James Hansen — NASA scientist and early researcher of global warming
Blamed on NASA
- NASA website
- NASA History Series is a treasure trove of free reading about the ins-and-outs of the agency.
- To everyone who cried foul over the end of Constellation: You're the problem.
- Angry Brazilian whacks NASA to put a stop to… er, the NSA
- The acronym is often decoded as "Never a Straight Answer" by people who wouldn't recognise a straight answer if it hit them in the head, or as "Need Another Seven Astronauts" by people who lack decency. Often the two groups overlap.
- Not stationed in Bulgaria.
- John Hopkins University
- The X stands for eXploration. But
unfortunatelyat least their logo doesn't include a Gundam.
- Named for the Ariane rockets - the main European developed rocket family
- Augustine Committee Releases Final Report, American Institute of Physics (That Augustine, if you were wondering.)
- Space science: The telescope that ate astronomy, Nature (There's a nice graph of the "cost curve.")
- Finally, an FY13 NASA Planetary Budget, Just 11 Months Late, Planetary Society
- One can't be always sure that some kind of thought process is going on. But Fox News may give us some answers.
- Sustaining exploration: communications, relevance, and value, The Space Review
- I don't want to live on this planet anymore.
- Where No Flag Has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon, NASA JSC
- Who "Really" Owns the Moon?