What If NASA Had Unlimited Budget? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Tom Machell
NASA has achieved A LOT since it was founded in the 1950s. It's put astronauts on the moon, contributed to the International Space Station, sent probes to every solar system planet and influenced hundreds of everyday inventions back here on Earth. So, what could NASA achieve if money wasn't an issue? In this video, Unveiled imagines a world where NASA has an unlimited budget to do everything it's ever wanted to!

What if NASA Had an Unlimited Budget?

Over the decades, NASA’s budget has raised plenty of questions. The Agency pocketed its biggest ever percentage of US federal spend back in the 1960s, but it’s cut has steadily fallen since then - for better or worse. So, what would happen if money wasn’t an issue? If NASA was given free reign? What would it mean for space travel, far-future tech and science in general?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if NASA had an unlimited budget?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, has seen its backing rise and fall in the twenty-first century. Whatever money it has received in recent years, though, has been put toward planned initiatives like the Europa Clipper mission, aiming to send a survey probe to the Jovian moon Europa in 2023, or the launch of the WFIRST telescope in 2025, set to have a field of view 100x greater than the Hubble. In fact, NASA currently has to fund more than 80 operating missions plus the development of dozens of future projects. So, given that the tremendous cost of launching even a single mission often means that rockets, probes and satellites can take years to get off the ground, swelling the budget indefinitely would surely go a long way to solving all of NASA’s problems - right?

While a culture of just throwing cash at those problems until they go away could arise, let’s hope there’d be at least some sense of structure in place. NASA already sponsors various school programs, internships, and research fellowships, but there’d be much more of them now - which means more people interested in NASA, and more people trained to work there. There’d then be more funding for new facilities which would mean more of just about everything… Because more staff in more labs breeds more research, more missions, and more discoveries over time - all undoubtably good things for NASA, science, and for the planet as a whole.

As of now, NASA’s limited budget means they must pursue only the more practical missions that have high mission assurance - that is a high level of safety and reliability - and an identifiable, recognisably valuable end goal. Limitless money means maximised mission assurance, though, and as close as possible to zero risk on a “traditional” space mission. While the unpredictability of space still means that anything could happen - the Europa probe could get destroyed by a rogue asteroid, for example - NASA would in general be freer to pursue its most ambitious goals, like developing advanced technologies that are today purely theoretical - from warp drive tech to time travel.

Albert Einstein wrote in his special theory of relativity that no object could move faster than the speed of light, but in 1994, Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a possible solution – the Alcubierre warp drive. It would be a device (you could call it an engine) mounted to a spacecraft that shrinks the space in front of the craft whilst expanding the space behind it. In theory, it should create a “warp bubble” around the ship, which would then move forward in space faster than the speed of light, carrying the ship and its contents with it.

The concept has a few problems, not least that nobody knows how to create a warp bubble, and that some research suggests that such a bubble would wind up expelling high-energy particles with so much force that they could slam into and obliterate entire planets. But, give NASA an unlimited budget, and the proposal needn’t feel like a far-off, frankly terrifying sci-fi dream. Right now, the Alcubierre warp drive is undoable because of the unknown and the potential danger… nevertheless, NASA has already showcased what a ship equipped with an Alcubierre set-up might look like – the IXS Enterprise, first presented in 2008. With a restricted budget, they could never justify actually building it; without financial constraints and if given enough time, though, they could.

Of course, time is important, and isn’t something that can be bought. It takes time to plan, build and carry out any mission, so even with an unlimited budget, we’d see no “quick fix” to space exploration, and there’d be no sudden splurge of NASA success stories. But it’s all about the potential.

Aside from warp drive, NASA reportedly has its sights set on solar-powered space travel, high-performance nuclear engines, manned missions to every solar system planet and increased exploration beyond the Oort Cloud. Much of what the Agency does is driven by a general desire to safely send humans into deep space, or even to a distant planet; to spread out from earth and, one day, across entire galaxies. But it’s a goal that just isn’t reachable at the moment because humanity hasn’t yet figured out the many technologies necessary to launch such a mission, including how to implement reliable long-term life support and protection from extreme radiation.

Naturally, though, with endless money comes endless opportunity to put that right. As long as the high standards of mission assurance are kept - meaning no one is placed in danger, and nothing’s needlessly destroyed - an unlimited budget would soften the negative impact of failed experiments; it wouldn’t feel like millions of dollars down the drain when there’d be millions more dollars instantly available. Which is good news for space travel, but also for general life. Over the years, NASA has in some way influenced the invention and development of lots of important things, including water filtration, prosthetics, cochlear implants, freeze-dried food and memory-foam mattresses. So, it wouldn’t just be the astronauts that’d be benefitting from all that extra cash, with new products appearing in everyone’s lives made possible by it.

At its core, NASA is like most other scientific organizations; it’s trying to solve problems and understand new things. And, as long as it’s focus on safety remains, it stays in some way regulated and it doesn’t get complacent, then a hypothetical world in which it has all the money it needs could see some of our most exciting ideas come to fruition. Sure, it’d still take time and there’d still be hurdles to overcome… but, whether it’s something as grand and far-flung as a warp-drive to different star systems or a more modest offshoot of the Organization’s work that in some way impacts everyday life, NASA would soon evolve into a super-sized central hub for humankind. Even more so than it already is, it’d be a technological trailblazer. And that’s what would happen if NASA had an unlimited budget.