I was reading the news, and came across yet another haterade story on the TSA. The story got me thinking about wasted government spending. Some argue that the TSA exists for the sole purpose of providing jobs to a country staving off depression by any means necessary. And yet, at the same time other portions of our government are having their budgets cut and complementary layoffs. Why is it that the TSA grows while other entities remain the same or shrink? Below I have included the budget links for the TSA as well as NASA.
At face value we see that the TSA has a total fiscal budget of around 40+ billion USD. NASA has a total of approximately 19 billion USD, usually less. I can infer from that, that the TSA is sucking down twice as much coin as NASA.
What’s interesting to note, is that NASA is an older organization than the TSA. They are continually involved in LARGE infrastructure projects on earth that support their research efforts. As part of that, there is a large drive to repair or demolish older buildings and make them more environmentally friendly as well as general safe. This is reflected in the budget under construction and environmental compliance and restoration. That budget is a mere 366 million. NASA has slated over a hundred structures for demolition nation wide. Some of them are of arguably historical significance. At Ames Research Center they are struggling to find funding to ‘re-skin’ the iconic Hangar 1 building. Luckily the Navy picked up the tab on removing hazardous materials from the building.
The TSA functionally provides very little to the American people. A solid majority of our nation will not fly anywhere this year. They won’t use airports and they won’t run into the TSA. It’s important to note that, as well, the TSA is NOT customs and border protection. So most of their amazon / ups / what have you orders will not be running through the hands of the TSA. Some of the pilots of planes moving packages may. However these are people who have gone through E-verify style background checks and have the equivalent of government PIV identification.
NASA of course will not be sending very many of us up into space this year. So we won’t be availing ourselves of their services directly. In fact, NASA will be paying first the Russian government, and then Elon Musk’s SpaceX for rides up to the international space station. But, what NASA provides is far more than space exploration ( as you can begin to see from their budget break down ). Earth Science for instance accounts for close to 2 billion of their budget this year. That’s a solid 10% of the yearly budget. Space Technology, Space Operations, and Space affiliated sciences eat up only 9 billion or so USD. With the nebulous “exploration” eating another 4.5 billion USD. So with something like 20+ space craft currently in deep space, and god knows how much in orbit, as well as 3 functional planetary surface explorations on going, NASA is only using 13.5 billion or so. And what WE get out of this, is a wealth of knowledge about the world we live in, the cosmos beyond it, and the inspiration to be better people. More than that, we are engaged in the greatest possible endeavor mankind can hope to achieve… finding purchase for ourselves out among the stars.
That being said… these organizations are fairly vast. They perform a myriad of tasks. For instance, most folks outside of NYC are unaware that their federal tax dollars are being used to support a highly controversial bag check program that the NYPD instituted in their subway system. TSA agents are performing the searches as NYPD officers look on. So if you live in California, New York thanks you for funding their illegal search operations in high crime neighborhoods where they would never profile in their search for ‘the terrorists’. It’s also interesting to note that TSA agents are not agents of arrest. Meaning that they cannot take anyone into custody. They rely upon local law enforcement for that.
By the same token, NASA owes you all a thanks for investing in their Mars Science Lab, and what may be one of the most complex landings that a surface lander has ever attempted. Hopefully we’ll see the science lab do it’s thing and not have invested in a very expensive crater. Not to cast aspersions on LCROSS or anything, sometimes those very expensive craters can be totally awesome.
Anyways. What I ultimately came around to was, let me look at a single set of programs that each organization is involved with. From the TSA, I chose the AIT scanner program. From NASA, I chose the Mars rover program. What the heck were the total costs associated with these two programs? Cursory research yielded two results. The research paper I cited below yielded an estimated cost of “…$1.2 billion per year by 2014″ for the AIT scanner program. Wikipedia yielded a total cost estimate of the entire rover program plus extensions to original budget to be a little shy of $1 billon. Note that the AIT scanner program is a recurring yearly cost that is equal to the entire mars rover program that spanned several years.
Now Bruce Schneier has his own cost benefit analysis of the AIT scanner program. So I won’t bother to inform you of my opinions of the program in terms of value in security. Bruce basically owns that subject. What I will say is this. Everyone, who has been through a TSA check point, knows the deal with what’s going on with those machines. We’ve all read the blog posts about what that system has entailed, in terms of harassment of air travelers, as well as their success in thwarting criminals. We’ve all also seen images captured by the AIT scanners. But, we’ve ALSO seen images captured by the mars rovers. My personal favorite is this one. You can judge for yourself which one of these programs yields more for you personally, as well as us as a people. When doing that remember this. Had the money spent on the AIT scanner program been instead spent on launching 2 new rovers a year to mars to new sites, or development and launch of better rovers, we’d know orders of magnitude more about a planet in our solar system that we can visit and live on. Of course we’d only generate jobs for skilled workers, but you know, thems the breaks.
This is a biased assessment. I hate the TSA. But let’s be honest. The entirety of space exploration is eating a solid half the budget of a bunch of high school drop outs who like to steal shit out of your luggage. What the hell does that say about us as a country?