Space exploration has always been about far more than just space. In the past, it’s been symbolic of political strength and scientific power. It’s also served as a major source of shared fascination and common ground for the public. In short, space exploration has become utterly and completely romanticized. It’s at the center of numerous critically acclaimed films, such as Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Hidden Figures, and First Man. Regardless of whether these stories unearth the past or imagine an unfamiliar future, they remind us of the vastness that we have yet to explore.
In the United States, the responsibility of exploring beyond our planet has in large part fallen to NASA since 1958. Today, however, the situation looks quite different. NASA concluded its space shuttle ventures back in 2011, exacerbating the already-growing trend towards private companies taking the reins on space exploration.
What is NASA’s role now?
NASA is still very much in the picture, albeit alongside several other organizations that now share the frame. The federal government has been a major source of funding for these organizations, having invested roughly $7.2 billion into 67 such entities from 2000-2018.
Where does NASA’s funding come from, you might ask? You guessed it – taxes. For the upcoming 2021 fiscal year, NASA is slated for a budget of $25.2 billion. While this figure might sound astronomical (pun intended), this is just 0.5% of the federal government’s entire budget for the same time period. Additionally, researchers point to the positive economic effects of NASA’s work. In 2005, for example, NASA generated about $8 worth of value for each dollar of its budget.
NASA also serves as a collaborator with many companies, such as Ceres Robotics and Tyvak Nano-Satellite System, Inc. This cooperation often happens under contract, such as with NASA paying to utilize others’ lunar transportation services. The Artemis mission is currently at the center of NASA’s focus, detailing a goal to land a woman on the moon – thereby making history – by 2024.
As NASA teams in Alabama prepare to load the launch vehicle stage adapter onto @NASA‘s Pegasus barge for shipment to @NASAKennedy for Artemis I launch preparations, here’s a quick look of the 26-day journey of #Artemis I in just 30 seconds. WATCH >> https://t.co/20e6fWUwO3 pic.twitter.com/IHXME5RKGo
— NASA_SLS (@NASA_SLS) July 16, 2020
Who are the other major players?
SpaceX is perhaps the forerunner of private companies exploring space, headed by tech mogul and father to one of coolest-named babies ever Elon Musk. The company has 92 launches and 55 landings to date, with an ultimate objective of “making humanity multiplanetary.” (Musk has his sights set on Mars.) Much of the work SpaceX does revolves around sustainability. The company aims to engineer “fully reusable launch vehicles,” a unique feature that would allow for significantly lower lifetime costs of these instruments. SpaceX has also partnered with NASA, although this relationship has not been entirely without strain.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is another company to watch. Reusability is also a primary point of concern for this organization, with locations across six states. The motivating idea behind Blue Origin is “a future where millions of people are living and working in space.” While this may sound like a lofty goal, their “Blue Moon” project currently includes the construction of a Human Landing System alongside NASA.
Outside of companies owned by some of the most well-known, exorbitantly rich people on Earth, there are several other groups in the space game. Moon Express got the green light from the United States government to fly an automated spacecraft to the moon back in 2016, the first commercial entity to receive that approbation. Astrobotic offers a MoonBox program that gives people the opportunity to send personal tokens to the moon. Maxar Technologies is using satellite systems to increase our awareness of Earth from space’s striking vantage point.
The Maxar-built Hughes Network’s Jupiter 3 #satellite will be one of the largest in orbit when it launches next year. Brazil has approved its use to serve the nation with Ka-band capacity. @HughesConnects #broadband https://t.co/Ui8ht8ojwz pic.twitter.com/6zSBBTtIFj
— Maxar Technologies (@Maxar) July 16, 2020
Why does space exploration matter, anyway?
Beyond its cultural significance, there exist more practical implications. Several of the inventions we rely upon each day originated with NASA engineers, from memory foam to athletic shoes and CAT scans. The immense challenge of preparing for and executing space exploration means that scientists are forced to think outside of the box on a multitude of tasks, oftentimes making critical and deeply influential strides in the process.
Others have pointed to the opportunities space presents to address some of our earthly qualms. For example, the gravity conditions on the International Space Station provide researchers with valuable insights about how cancer affects the body. Similarly, some have pointed to asteroid mining as a potential source of supply for materials that are hard to come by on Earth. (While not immediately implementable, this idea could be an important blueprint for the future.) And of course, there’s always the extraterrestrial colonization idea.
What’s the problem?
Remember what we said earlier about taxes? Regardless of space exploration’s supposedly positive externalities, not everyone is convinced of its benefits.
Taxpayers pour immense sums into the space program, yet the direct returns aren’t exactly obvious. Sure, we get some scientific breakthroughs and the satisfaction of unthinkable human achievement. However, it’s possible that these breakthroughs might not trickle down to us in our lifetimes, even though these advancements are funded on our dime.
Others argue that the current focus of sending people back to the moon might be misguided. While the loss of human life is always a prominent fear in these incredibly technical missions, robots don’t share many of our constraints. Fluctuations in temperature, radiation, or pressure can be fatal for astronauts, while automated explorers can be engineered to withstand more of space’s demanding conditions.
You might find the idea of outer space completely unsettling, or perhaps you see its enormity as a source of comfort. Either way, it’s hard to ignore the role that space exploration has played in our collective history, as well as the role it might play in our future. Our fascination with space is likely to be more than just a phase, and it could even be the key to the survival of our species.
Is the future of space exploration promising enough to warrant this magnitude of taxpayer money? Let us know your thoughts in the polls below.
Cover Photo by SpaceX via Unsplash
Do you think space exploration is valuable?
I can look at the moon from the comfort of my window, thank you very much
Do you think the amount of money spent on space is reasonable?
yes – complex projects aren’t cheap!
not in my book
Do you think we’ll see any major space discoveries in the next 10 years?
I doubt it