Posted in: United States

Not Exactly Rocket Science

By | January 8, 2018

1068px-Space_Shuttle_Columbia_launching

In the years before America’s triumphant 1969 moon landing, there was panic. In 1957, the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite. Sputnik, a “dazzling new sight in the heavens,” was an extraordinary human accomplishment. The beautifully polished metal sphere managed to orbit Earth 1,440 times before it burned up in Earth’s atmosphere 92 days later. Most importantly, however, Sputnik represented the apex of Soviet scientific accomplishment. The Communists had beat America to the heavens.

Naturally, American leaders panicked. The launch galvanized America toward massive new investments in aerospace. The federal government founded The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which soon ballooned to require over 4 percent of the federal government’s budget. Soon, American astronauts would become the first and only to set foot on the moon. The Soviet scare ended in American triumph.

It’s now been six years since the retirement of the space shuttle. NASA can no longer ferry humans into space. Its portion of the federal budget has declined from almost 4.5 percent during the Apollo program to a measly 0.5 percent. John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute and Emeritus Professor at George Washington University, summarized his experience to the HPR: “I was at the Apollo 11 launch. I lived the period where we were exploring. … The fact that we stopped and haven’t restarted is disappointing.”

The disappointment of previous generations at the state of space exploration is palpable. In 2012, Buzz Aldrin took to the cover of the MIT Technology Review to lament, “You promised me Mars colonies. Instead, I got Facebook.” Their cries of disappointment have coincided with a real paradigm shift in space travel. Gone is the galvanizing context of the Cold War and massive government funding for ventures into space. Instead, America has entered a new age of private-public partnership and international cooperation in space.

Private Promise

Where the Russian government spent years launching a satellite that stayed in space for a mere 92 days, today, satellites made by companies can track down human trafficking vessels from orbit by identifying boat characteristics as small as mast design. Similarly, while researchers used to depend solely on governments for funding, today initiatives like Google’s Lunar XPrize promise millions of dollars to private teams able to land a vehicle on the moon. And although governments used to be the gatekeepers to the heavens, today organizations like Space for Humanity are seeking to democratize such access by choosing astronauts  of diverse backgrounds, nationalities, and ethnicities.

It’s not a totally new development to have private companies working on projects in space, according to Harvard Professor Matthew Hersch. Hersch told the HPR that private individuals have spent vast sums of money on space exploration efforts like telescope development since as early as the 18th century. NASA itself has partnered with private companies since its inception for almost all of its hardware production. What is new is the media attention and resources these private companies command. No longer is NASA the image of America’s cosmic hopes: that moniker now belongs to lean, billionaire-backed startups like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.

SpaceX made history in 2012 when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vessel to dock with the International Space Station. Today, it is forging a very public partnership with NASA. The company is currently modifying the same Dragon spacecraft that delivered cargo to the ISS in 2012 to deliver humans there as well as early as 2018. Since the retirement of Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011, NASA has had no aircraft capable of manned missions to space and has instead relied on Russian aircraft. Dragon, if successful, would be America’s only space shuttle—but it would be private.

The private space industry today seems keen on the idea of teaming up with government. “One thing we preach a lot is public-private partnership,” Jane Kinney, assistant director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told the HPR. “NASA is the expert on a lot of things and has a lot of great data, but there are just so many new ideas coming out of the private sector leading to innovation.” Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is also looking to eschew the traditional role of a contractor and instead partner as an equal with the government and shape the regulatory environment in space. At the National Space Council meeting in October, Blue Origin called for streamlining the licensing process for launches so it can pursue its “Blue Moon” program to make commercial landings on the moon faster.

But private corporations aren’t just filling gaps left by the government. They are also exploring new possibilities in space. MarsOne is currently in the process of selecting candidates for manned missions to Mars as early as 2024. MoonExpress is planning on launching the first commercial resource prospecting vehicle to the moon by 2020. Virgin Galactic is looking to become the first commercial spaceline bringing civilians into space. When asked by the HPR if space travel would ever become a normal human activity, Jane Kinney said “we’re almost already there.”

In the last few years, these companies have come to command entrepreneurial admiration. In a 2016 survey of startup founders conducted by venture capital firm First Round, SpaceX and Tesla leader Elon Musk was named the most-admired figure in tech. SpaceX and Blue Origin, much like tech firms such as Apple and Google, often host their own press events for product launches.

Footprints and Flags

When Kennedy set America’s sights on the moon in 1962, he portrayed the quest as a profoundly patriotic endeavor. The fact that private companies are increasingly the public face of space exploration means it will difficult for another “Kennedy moment” to mobilize so much human effort and capital toward a singular goal. There is no Cold War-like phenomenon that forces the government to signal its technological superiority with a moonshot like the Apollo program. Instead, companies might proceed at their own pace and according to their own profit incentives.

Successive presidents in the White House, however, have been in search of their very own Kennedy moment. There is need, according to Hersch, to show the world that “America’s best days are not behind it.” Government-led space exploration today is seen more as a signal of American prestige and prowess than a purely scientific endeavor.

To that end, the Trump administration has promised a renewed focus on space exploration and has recreated The National Space Council that existed during the George H.W. Bush administration to foster intergovernmental cooperation on the matter.

The Trump administration has also announced that the focus of American efforts in space will once again be the moon. The new administration believes that returning to the moon will not simply serve to “leave behind footprints and flags” but also to “build the foundation … to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”

But the context in which this administration is promising renewed American effort in space is bleak. NASA’s funding as a percentage of the federal budget has been steadily declining for decades, and the Trump administration has promised no respite from funding cuts for the beleaguered agency. “NASA has been trying to seek ambitious goals with inadequate resources,” Logsdon said. “Every outside look at NASA’s efforts in the last thirty years … has concluded that the resources NASA’s budget has do not match its goals.”

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have taken into account the increasing prominence of private companies in space. When Pence announced the new efforts to reach the moon, he acknowledged that “we must look beyond the halls of government for input and guidance.” Obama too promised to work with an “array of private companies.” Neither administration, however, has invested the resources necessary for truly ground-breaking government-led space exploration. And although most Americans view NASA favorably, only 23 percent would support increasing NASA’s budget.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Even without public support for a larger budget, it’s possible that a looming challenge like climate change or competition from another world power would force America to invest more in space just as during the Cold War.

Despite the fact that China’s Tiangong-1 Space Station is currently hurdling towards earth after the Chinese lost control of the spacecraft, the country remains ambitious about its cosmic prospects. The National Space Administration plans on landing a rival probe on Mars by 2020, as well as land a probe on the infamous and largely unexplored dark side of the moon. This technological prowess could pose a threat America must address, as China and Russia develop offensive space capabilities with the ability to disrupt American communications.

Furthermore, the urgent and largely unaddressed problem of climate change could force NASA to work towards colonizing Mars. Rising temperatures and seas may create millions of refugees fleeing drastic climate changes over the next century. The natural response is to find a planet not imperiled by impending climate disaster. Stephen Hawking recently announced that for humanity to survive we must colonize other planets within the century. To foster Mars colonization, it’s hard to think of a more galvanizing context than the very survival of our species.

Nevertheless, most agree that both international competition and climate change are unlikely to force the government to invest in NASA in the same way it did during the Cold War. Logsdon argues, “space exploration is not much related to climate change” unless one adopts the “pessimistic view” that the Earth is doomed that we have to leave. As for competition with world powers like China creating a new space race, Logsdon argues it’s more likely America will show “leadership through leading a coalition.” In other words, international cooperation, as opposed to competition, is the new norm.

Signs of this new era of international cooperation are already emerging. The International Space Station, a $150 billion project, has been continuously inhabited for over 16 years now. The cosmic outpost has hosted long-term crews from ten different nations and visitors from many more. And just as private companies command a great deal of buzz in space policy circles, the idea of international cooperation in space is also more popular than ever. This year, for the first time in twenty years, Russia sent a significant delegation to the Space Foundation’s annual Space Symposium to discuss future partnerships in space with the United States. Slow steps, made by international governments and private business in tandem, are the future of space exploration.

To Infinity and Beyond?

It’s unlikely that another major achievement in space will come in the near future from NASA alone. What is clear is that space exploration has fundamentally changed. It will be slow, difficult, and dominated by the visions of corporate heads and other international powers.

Hersch, nevertheless, is optimistic. “When European explorers arrived in the Americas,” he said, “they encountered gravity, air, water, food, animals, plants, and sometimes people willing to help them. We are going to encounter none of those things when we go to Mars.” It takes time to overcome these fundamental physical barriers to Mars colonization, Hersch argued. “It’s going to happen, but it may not happen quite as quickly as everyone hopes it will.”

Image Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

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