NASA Passes on the Torch: Conquest of Space Redefined

An op-ed I originally wrote for and published on CORE Impulse.

Just as a relatively clear sky welcomed a blood moon early morning Tuesday, April 15 at Columbia, clouds soon covered the spectacular total eclipse. Just as the infamous 20th century space race peaked in 1969, space exploration has gradually declined and faded away in recent years with NASA budge cuts. We rarely hear about bold expeditions to the faraway reaches of the universe. Can the privatization of space with space startups defy the federal and fiscal impediments and renew public interest?

The Fall of NASA

NASA is the undisputed giant of the space industry, with funding of $17.46 billion (for fiscal year 2015) and 17,521 employees. It sounds absurd for anyone, much less a startup, to even attempt to compete with and rival it. But the largest space startup SpaceX now has over 3,000 employees (from 160 in 2005), a $1.6 billion dollar contract with NASA and $5 billion private contracts.

However, NASA is a shadow of its former self. If the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011 wasn’t enough, NASA funding, according to its annual fiscal budget, dropped from as high as 4.41% of the U.S. budget in 1966 to less than half a percent in 2014. What happened to the massive investments like those spent on the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing ($25 billion, in 1964 terms)? Crippled by budget cuts, startups like SpaceX and Russia rocketry are just beginning to explore the incredibly fertile outer space.

It sounds absurd for anyone, much less a startup, to even attempt to compete with and rival NASA.

New Players in Space

SpaceX is the most prominent space rocketry startup today. Founded in 2002 and based in Hawthorne, California, SpaceX aims to enable people to live on other planets by revolutionizing space technology. Founder, philanthropist, and billionaire Elon Musk invested $100 million of his own money to jumpstart SpaceX.

SpaceX has made history several times already. In September 2008, Falcon 1 became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to reach orbit. On December 8, 2010, it became the first private company to launch and return spacecraft from orbit. In May 2012, its Dragon spacecraft successfully attached to ISS and exchanged cargo payloads. More recently, its Grasshopper spacecraft, the first in a series of reusable technology, has completed its highest leap of 325m.

It’s hard to imagine any competitors for SpaceX would be tied with it neck-to-neck two years ago. But since then, SpaceX’s incomparable fame has overshadowed any recent successes by the older startup Orbital. The startup has a $75 million contract with NASA to build a Kepler-like telescope TESS. In 2013, Orbital successfully launched its Antares and Minotaur V rockets. But attention soon shifted back to SpaceX when the latter test-launched Grasshopper.

Dreaming Big

Space startups must first overcome challenges such as privacy, the delay in satellite deployment, and the low quality of commercial telescope images, according to Forbes. According to Air & Space magazine, skeptics like Alan Stern don’t share Musk’s SpaceX vision: “[Elon Musk] is not in it to build the rockets; that’s a means to an end. It’s a religion for him.”

But what’s a better place to dream big than in space? Space startups prove to be low-cost and efficient, and rising competition may accelerate our dreams of space travel. As more companies start to vie with SpaceX, we just may see the 80,000-person Mars colony that Musk dreams about.

Space, that inexplicable blackness of the night sky lit by tiny blinking dots we call stars. Whether it be the ordinary, tangible spaces of New York City or the intangible deep space billions of light years away, we may even be obsessed with it—I worked on my own astronomy blog “The Cosmos” for a year to understand space.

“Humanity’s interest in the heavens has been universal and enduring,”  NASA says. If only.

The Story Continues

NASA passes the baton to space startups to keep exploration alive, but interest in this industry is at an all-time low. Just walk around the City at night. How many look up at the sky, are even aware of the beauty behind the light pollution? When Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach did Sidewalk Astronomy last Tuesday, I noticed that almost no one had seen the moon or Jupiter through a telescope before. According to Nielsen’s TV ratings for April 15, viewers would rather watch an episode of The Good Wife (9.83 million) or Resurrection (7.46 million) than one of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (3.49 million).

How many look up at the sky, are even aware of the beauty behind the light pollution?

Sure, the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union is now over. But that accomplishment is nothing compared to the potential of satellite imaging, future manned and unmanned missions, space travel and colonization. There’s Mars, asteroids, comets, and extra-solar planets (and much of Earth) to explore and map. Space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic have opened reservations for space venture, albeit for a very exclusive club. (It costs about $20 million for a one week stay in space.)

The story did not end with the space race, and certainly cannot end now.

So take a moment and look up at the night sky. You live in the present, see into the past, and may even predict the future. A future where the competition between space startups drives a new age of space exploration, and even widespread commercial space travel.

By: Tianjia Liu, Columbia College, Class of 2017


AstroStories: Astronomy, Astrology, and Mythology

Stories, Myths of the Ancient World

Stories, Myths of the Ancient World

AstroStories ~ Astronomy. Astrology. Mythology.

Astronomy is the oldest science, evolving from storytelling and navigation to being combined with astrology and horoscopes to discoveries familiar to today’s technology. From the Stone Age to ancient civilizations, Renaissance, and the modern era, people look to the skies every night to solve its mystery, only to raise more questions about the Universe. In this series, I want to explore the stories passed down from generation to generation and preserved for millenia, adding a new dimension to astronomy— imagination. It’s not enough to know the facts and analyze data. Mythology and astrology was deeply integrated into the ancients’ daily life and astronomy. When the ancient peoples congregated at night, stories of the constellations, such as those of the great heroes Perseus and Orion the Hunter, sprung from vivid imagination.

The Sunday before last, I went on an astronomy night hike with friends at the local trails. I not only saw Saturn, Jupiter, and an artificial satellite ricocheting through the Big Dipper, but also reenacted a scene about Orion the Hunter, the seven sisters, Zeus, Artemis, and Scorpio. I realized the permanence of these timeless stories, able to penetrate many cultures and decades.

Asteroid Capture!

Russia Meteorite 2013: The largest of the century!

Russia Meteorite 2013: The largest of the century!

Asteroids are an excellent source of natural resources (minerals, etc.) As stated in the U.S. fiscal year of 2014 budget, NASA requested $100 million to initiate plans to capture an asteroid, haul it into the lunar orbit, and send manned missions to the asteroid by 2025! Mining an asteroid in the future could help resupply rapidly depleting fossil fuels and natural minerals. Beside the apparent need for resources, NASA hopes to advance technological developments that will provide opportunities for “international cooperation, new industrial capabilities, and helping scientists better understand how to protect Earth if a large asteroid is every found on a collision course. You may have heard about the recent Russia Chelyabinsk meteorite incident. 1,500 injured and 7,000 buildings suffered. A small asteroid invaded Earth’s atmosphere and struck the ground in Russia. The shockwaves shattered thousands of windows!

NASA proposes identifying suitable targets, or asteroids 20 to 30 feet in diameter (extremely hard to spot) in favorable orbits (near Earth and small revolution) that would allow easy capture and transport to Earth. These desired small asteroids hit Earth on a regular basis; the asteroid that hit Russia was 50 feet in diameter. NASA’s Orion crew capsule and heavy-lift booster will send astronauts to the asteroid for sample returns. NASA has two teams working the proposed mission: one searching for suitable asteroids and developing unmanned technology to capture the asteroid, and another on future manned missions and sample collection.

In the wake of the asteroid (then meteorite) rocking Russia and a close call with an asteroid passing close to Earth on the same day, astronomers are extremely interested in asteroids.

Proposed Timeline

2017: test flight

2019: capture mission

2021: asteroid hauled back to cislunar (between Earth and moon) orbit

by 2025: astronauts sent to asteroid


Harwood, William. “NASA mulls asteroid capture mission, eventual manned visits.” CBS News. CBS News, 5 Apr 2013. Web. 12 Apr 2013.

The 8 Planets Series: The Finale

For the last few months, if you stayed tuned to my “8 Planets” series, I updated information on each of the planets and major moons, taking you on a journey through the solar system. From Mercury to Neptune, the solar system holds many wonders, twists and turns, and bizarre objects. Coincidentally, the 8 posts, corresponding to each of the planets, was spaced out on the calendar roughly relative to the distances between the planets. The four terrestrial planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, are relatively close to one another (less than 1 AU). These four posts were published around the same time. However, for the gaseous planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, posts were spread out across months to correlate with these planets’ large distances from one another. Well, thank you for tuning in! To celebrate the “8 Planets” series I created a solar system mobile, as shown below. Enjoy! The next series will be “Astronomy and Mythology: The Naming of Celestial Objects.”

The 8 Planets – Part 4: Mars



A very belligerent planet. Mars. Named after the Roman god of war, Mars appears as a fiery battle-stained planet. Out of the seven planets (excluding Earth), Mars seems to be the most habitable planet. Although much smaller than Earth, Mars has an atmosphere (though thinner), ice caps (though mainly dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide), and evidence that water once flowed on its surface. Astronomers have yet to find life on Mars, but sci-fi authors have long contemplated the possibility of life on Mars in the present or future (e.g. The Martian Chronicles). Don’t let the name fool you. Mars, the god of war, leaves no one alive while Venus, the goddess of love, often has a soft heart. In the solar system, Venus is a deadly planet while Mars is relatively benign.

The fourth planet from the Sun and the last terrestrial planet, Mars, the “Red Planet,” is actually the second smallest planet and the most explored aside from Earth. Distinguishable by its red color from an abundance of iron oxide, Mars has a thin atmosphere blanketing a surface filled with impact craters, volcanoes, valleys, deserts, and polar ice caps. Mars is also home to Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system, and Valles Marineris, a large crack on Mars’ surface and one of the largest canyons. Dark patches on its surface suggest presence of large quantities of liquid water in the past. Though similar to Earth in surface features and climate, Mars is only about half the size of Earth, with 15% of Earth’s volume and 11% of mass. Because of its similar axial tilt, Mars has Earth-like seasons, though with a colder climate. Barren, Mars has the largest dust storms in the solar system. Mars is bigger than Mercury but less dense because of an iron sulfide core composed of lighter elements. The core is surrounded by a silicate mantle and the mantle by a thick crust. With no evidence of a global magnetic field, Mars, however, has some magnetized crust that has reversed polarity like Earth’s ocean floors. Mars’ geological history is split into three periods: Noachian period (4.5 – 3.5 billion years ago, oldest surfaces with impact craters and extensive flooding of water), Hesperian period (3.5 to 2.9 – 3.3 billion years ago, extensive lava plains), Amazonian period (2.9 – 3.3 billion years ago to present, few impact craters, Olympus Mons forms, lava flows). On Martian Soil, light silica-rich streaks appear on steep slopes, perhaps the dark underlying layers of soil exposed after dust avalanches. As Earth speeds Mars, Mars appears to move in a retrograde motion, or backwards with respect to the stars. Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos.


Phobos and Deimos

Mars’ two moons look more like asteroids than Earth’s moon. Named for Mars’ sons and attendants in battle, Phobos and Deimos mean “fear” and “panic,” respectively. Because of their low albedo, carbonaceous chondrite composition, and irregular shapes, scientists have proposed the capture theory. Stray asteroids from the Trojan belt may have been pulled into Mars orbit. Phobos is below synchronous position, so Mars’ tidal forces will eventually cause Phobos to crash into Mars’ surface, either forming an impact crater or a dust ring in 50 million years. On the contrary, Deimos is outside synchronous position, so the moon is slowly spiraling away from Mars. In about 50 million years, Mars may have no moons!

MISSIONS*: Mariner, Mars, Viking, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Spirit, Opportunity, Rosetta, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix, Dawn, Mars Science Laboratory

* Successful Missions


  • Order in Solar System: #4
  • Number of Moons: 2
  • Orbital Period: 687 days
  • Rotational Period: 24 hours, 39 minutes, 35 seconds
  • Mass: 6.4185 x 10^23 kg (0.107 Earths)
  • Volume: 1.6318 x 10^11 km³ (0.151 Earths)
  • Radius: 3,396 km (0.533 Earths)
  • Surface Area: 1.45 x 10^8 km² (0.284 Earths)
  • Density: 3.9335 g/cm
  • Surface Pressure: 0.636 kPa
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.093315
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 210 K
  • Escape Velocity: 5.027 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: +1.6 to -3.0

The 8 Planets – Part 3: Earth


Earth, our home planet

Imagine a blank sphere floating in the middle of space. Now picture the whole sphere flooded by blue oceans, rivers, and lakes. And seven continents, defined by low elevation green patches, high elevation brown areas, and deserts golden brown. Add white ice caps capping the North and South Poles. And white swirling clouds in the atmosphere. Then tilt the whole sphere 23.5 degrees. There. Our home planet, Earth!

Third planet from the Sun and the only planet to support life, Earth, or the Blue Planet, formed 4.54 billion years ago from accretion of the solar nebula and first hosted life approximately 1 billion years ago. Though technically not named after any Gods, the Greek god Gaea is mother of the earth. Home to millions of species, Earth has the “Goldilocks Phenomenon” since all conditions including climate and temperature support life. Earth is in the “life zone,” where water exists in all three phases: gas, liquid, and solid. Earth’s surface is 30% land and 70% water. Collectively, the biosphere and the abundance of minerals support life. Earth’s atmosphere, specifically the ozone layer, and magnetic field blocks high-energy electromagnetic radiation harmful for life. The axis of the Blue Marble, the largest terrestrial planet, tilts 23.5 degrees, causing the four annual seasons. The hemisphere tilting toward the Sun is in summer and the other is in winter. In fact, Earth’s orbit is nearly circular and Earth is actually closer to the Sun in winter than in summer. Earth’s tectonic activity, or the sliding of tectonic plates, causes volcanic activity and earthquakes that renew Earth’s surface. A viscous liquid mantle and a rigid crust surround a solid core. Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.25 days and rotates once every 24 hours. Earth has one moon, or natural satellite.


The Moon

Earth only has one moon, called the Moon. Reflecting sun light, this natural satellite orbits the Earth once every ~29 days, seen in different phases throughout every month: New Moon, Waxing Crescent, First Quarter, Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, Waning Gibbous, Third Quarter, Waning Crescent. Formed about 4.53 billion years ago, the Moon is an imperfect sphere bombarded by asteroids and comets during the Late Bombardment Period 3.8-4.1 billion years ago. In fact, the Near Side is much smoother than the Far Side (never observed from Earth), so one theory is that the Moon was actually two chunks of material that collided. However, the giant impact hypothesis indicates that a large object collided into Earth’s surface and while some mass fused with Earth, the rest formed the Moon. This theory explains why the Moon’s interior is similar to that of Earth. The Moon’s gravitational pull contributes the movement of ocean tides, stabilizes Earth’s tilt, and gradually slows the Earth’s rotation.


  • Order in Solar System: #3
  • Number of Moons: 1
  • Orbital Period: 1 year
  • Rotational Period: 1 day
  • Mass: 2.9736 x 10^24 kg
  • Volume: 1.08321 x 10^12 km³
  • Radius: 6,371 km
  • Surface Area: 5.10 x 10^8 km²
  • Density: 5.515 g/cm
  • Surface Pressure: 101.325 kPa
  • Eccentricity of Orbit: 0.0167
  • Surface Temperature (Average): 287.2 K
  • Escape Velocity: 11.186 km/s
  • Apparent Magnitude: N/A