Yesterday evening the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off from Cape Canaveral and is en route to the international space station.
The photo below is one of the main reasons I've been enamored of the U.S. space program since I was a child.
View of Earth, over the edge of the shuttle's payload bay, as captured by a video camera aboard Atlantis. Image courtesy of NASA TV.
This most recent shot of our planet from space sort of reminds me of that great shot of Earthrise, photographed by Apollo 8 astronauts in December 1968. I had that as a poster in my bedroom until I went off to college.
And I still think, as I blogged last summer, that NASA is one of our best tax expenditures.
The table below, from data compiled by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, shows an excerpt of NASA's annual budget, in billions of dollars, over the years. The space program's budget highpoint was 1966, during the height of construction efforts leading up to Project Apollo's first lunar landing.
1958 $$ Constant CPI
Year adj. for $$ (1966) 2001
1958 0.089 0.488 0.1828
1959 0.145 0.781 0.1862
1960 0.401 2.145 0.187
1966 5.933 26.820 0.2212
1970 3.755 14.616 0.2569
1980 4.850 8.966 0.5409
1990 12.429 14.714 0.8447
2000 13.600 12.618 1.0779
2007 16.250 13.007 1.125 (est)
Back at that '66 peak, Apollo involved more than 34,000 NASA employees and 375,000 employees of industrial and university contractors. Roughly two to four cents out of every U.S. tax dollar, or 4 percent of the total federal budget (adjusted for inflation in today's dollars), went to the space program. The full table, with all the yearly authorizations since NASA's beginning in 1958 through 2007, can be found here.
I know the country has many immediate needs, but I still believe space exploration ultimately provides valuable rewards. Some of those benefits are noted in a letter sent last month to Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, ranking member of the Subcommittee on Space, Aeronautics and Related Sciences.
In that correspondence, executives of 23 aerospace and technology companies urge Hutchison and her Capitol Hill colleagues to enact "a top-line increase for NASA's FY 2008 budget."
I don't often agree with big business, but I do here. NASA does indeed play a crucial role in advancing our nation's innovation agenda, with programs that promote our scientific, economic and educational interests.
Plus, there's nothing as simultaneously exciting, terrifying and awe inspiring as a manned rocket launch.
Let's keep our astronauts flying.