Can Private Companies Keep NASA in the Space Race?

On October 28th the United States public’s attention briefly returned to space exploration as one of NASA’s newer rockets exploded seconds after takeoff in Virginia. The news served as a reminder that while the United States government focuses on budgets, internal politics, and foreign affairs, the exploration of space by it, many other countries, and commercial interests, continues quietly in the background.

Image courtesy of SpaceX, © 2005, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of SpaceX, © 2005, some rights reserved.

The United States isn’t losing the space race, but its recent approach to the final frontier calls into question if it can remain the frontrunner in space exploration. The American struggle to maintain its position at the forefront in space is hardly new—the Soviet Union was arguably responsible for every major achievement regarding space up until Apollo 11, but the general apathy shown by the American government towards space exploration both as an advancement of mankind and a potential source of commercial growth is far more alarming than Sputnik or Yuri Gagarin.

The recent explosion of the NASA Antares rocket, set to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), stands as a grim reminder of the relative stagnation the American space program faces when juxtaposed with the advances of other countries’ programs, including the Chinese probe orbiting the moon and an Indian probe successfully entering Mars’ orbit in recent months. Similarly, the European Space Agency made history by landing a small probe on a comet for the first time ever on 12 November 2014.

While these other space agencies push the boundaries of what they can do, NASA faces budget cuts that challenge its financial ability to maintain their current operating systems. NASA has already proposed a cut to funding for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a Boeing 747 with an attached telescope that can fly above the layers of atmosphere that hinder observatories on the ground. This and other systems have been defunded by NASA as it is forced to prioritize its projects, particularly the planned successor to the Hubble Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, which was announced in 2011 to cost $3 billion USD over budget in a financial climate in which NASA is struggling to secure funds for the maintenance of their current projects.

Despite the rapid rate of advancement of other nations’ space agencies, and the staggering cuts proposed and implemented recently in the United States, all is not lost for NASA. A combination of prioritizing its manned missions to asteroids and eventually Mars, in addition to the rise of a commercial space industry could allow NASA to stay at the forefront of space exploration. The agency maintains that it has programs on track to put a man on an asteroid by the 2020s and on Mars by the 2030s, almost a decade before China estimates it can feasibly put manned spacecraft on the planet. Assuming the $17 Billion USD annual budget for the agency isn’t significantly cut, the United States has a serious chance to be the first nation to land a manned spacecraft on another planet. Should NASA successfully reach Mars with a manned spacecraft, it will set a new benchmark for the potential range of manned space missions.

The recent rise of commercial endeavors in space stand as a boon to a beleaguered NASA and other agencies with smaller budgets. However, the interests represented by private companies are not as altruistic as the publicly funded space agencies that currently explore our solar system. As NASA faces financial troubles, private companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic offer new and often cheaper technologies that NASA is more than willing to utilize. SpaceX’s new Falcon heavy rocket stands to significantly decrease the cost of sending materials into space, something NASA is happy to invest in as it looks for ways to cut costs without sacrificing any more of its programs. This use of private companies in space comes with the inherent risks associated with leaving the responsibility for safety and regulation in private hands rather than a government agency. The Antares rocket was constructed by NASA with all its experience in rocket design and it still exploded shortly after its fifth mission. Similarly, a Virgin Galactic spacecraft recently suffered a crash while testing a craft designed to put tourists into space that resulted in the death of a pilot. Commercial activity in space will provide a financial incentive for government and private interest, but at the cost of purely scientific motives for expansion into space.

If NASA and other agencies become ‘hooked’ on the cheap transport and other services that private companies like SpaceX provide, the exploration of space becomes more and more about financial realities and economic potential than simply pushing scientific boundaries. NASA plans to send a manned mission to an asteroid around 2025 while American corporations eye the potential resources such as rare minerals and water that can be extracted from nearby asteroids. The first space mining firm, Planetary Resources, has already been established—well before the technology has been developed to feasibly extract resources. NASA plans to complete this technology to “catch” an asteroid and put it in orbit around the moon, allowing for a manned expedition but also allowing for commercial enterprises to extract lucrative resources that are rare on earth but abundant in some asteroids.

Many deride the idea of private industry in space, and Neil Armstrong famously voiced his opposition to SpaceX before his death as a corruption of the altruistic ideals normally associated with space travel. Despite this criticism, it is important to note that the money that private industry could put into space once the technology accommodates a profitable endeavor would allow for much more efficient exploration of space. Companies like Planetary Resources that wish to mine minerals and water from asteroids could save space agencies a lot of money by producing raw materials in space. Mining in space allows for construction outside of the atmosphere and currently $2 billion USD is spent annually solely on sending enough water into space to sustain the ISS crew, so a cheap way to extract water from an asteroid with no pesky atmosphere to get through would be welcome by the international community. The hard truth is that, as much as some would hate to admit it, private companies in space could save not only NASA’s budget, but man’s hopes for further exploring the cosmos.

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