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

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