NASA is one of America’s most beloved public institutions. They’ve sent men to the moon and speedy probes to the realm outside our solar system. They’ve landed rovers on Mars and taken closeups of Pluto.
A century ago, NASA’s achievements were consigned to the realm of science fiction, but today we can click through photos of faraway stars, planets, and galaxies on our computers — thanks of course to the help of researchers and students across the globe. Yet despite this success and all the technological spin-offs it has spawned — from astronaut ice cream to cat scans and wireless headphones — they remain underfunded relative to their popularity, especially compared to their heydays in the 60’s and 70’s. NASA was once close to 5% of the total US budget, but now accounts for less than 0.5%, despite public perception that it’s more like 6–10%.
Of course, most people dislike the idea of paying more taxes and it’s hard to motivate spending on space travel when healthcare and infrastructure are constant battles. Nonetheless, people are excited about space travel, and businessmen like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have heavily invested in the space-travel realm. Bezos’ blue origin has even offered super-expensive raffle tickets at $30 million a seat for a ride on his Blue Origin vessel.
Clearly, the public is interested. So is there some way to drum up both excitement and financial support?
Enter the Space Lottery. I know, it sounds like something from a cyberpunk novel, but we’ve already got billionaires flying to orbit, governments warring over misinformation in cyberspace, and cybernetic limbs, so bear with me.
The Space Lottery would help fund new NASA projects and public education campaigns. Folks could enter online for a small fee — perhaps $2.50–5.00, or about the price of a cup of coffee. In return, they’d be sending more money NASA’s way and earn the chance to win a monetary prize AND to send something to space — a message for aliens, a photo of a loved one, or something else. If the program brought in enough money, perhaps it could even reward winners with space camp, or even a trip to orbit, albeit after lengthy and expensive training.
There could be downsides, of course. Notably, gambling is addictive and shouldn’t be overly encouraged. There’s also the danger that vindictive legislators could use a lottery’s success as an excuse to cut NASA’s budget, so stipulations would have to be put in place to protect it. Finally, there’s a chance the lottery might be a failure, but given the success of other lotteries I’m hopeful.
The eyes of the world are already aimed into the cosmos. Hubble was recently repaired and is poised to take spectacular images again, SpaceX’s rocket launches are attracting millions of viewers, and the “Cosmos” itself is back on the air. Now’s the time to take advantage of this trend, to help fund more science, and to inspire some hope for the future in a time when we really need it.