In April 1961, the Soviet Union posed a grave existential threat to the United States. Four years earlier, the Soviets had shocked the U.S. with the successful launch of the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik. Yuri Gagarin had just become the first human to orbit the planet, and the frightening prospect of a communist-controlled nuclear missile base in outer space appeared more and more realistic.
With his country rapidly losing the space race, President John F. Kennedy announced the ambitious goal of sending an American to the moon before 1970. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he declared, prompting a massive increase in the size of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA’s share of the federal budget shot up from less than one percent in 1961 to five percent in 1966, and Kennedy’s dream was realized in 1969 when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in “one giant leap for mankind.”
Fifty-two years after Kennedy’s promise, NASA’s $17 billion budget comprises less than 0.5 percent of federal spending, and recent disagreements in Washington have further handicapped the government agency. Mandatory sequestration cuts decreased NASA’s budget by roughly five percent and forced the agency to scrap research programs and space missions. NASA ended its space shuttle program in 2011, causing some to proclaim that NASA’s demise was imminent. Yet while the space race is over and its resources are constrained, the agency is once again hankering to fundamentally alter the nature of space exploration.
A generation ago, no private corporation had the resources to challenge NASA’s monopoly over an expanding American presence in the solar system. But the downsizing of NASA has ushered in a sharp growth in the number of private space companies. One of these is Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company formed in 2010 with Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt as key investors. The company promises to conduct missions that NASA does not. Another — Virgin Galactic — seeks to give ordinary citizens the opportunity to explore space, whereas only expert astronauts have participated in NASA spaceflight in the past. Virgin Galactic has created the commercial space industry and hopes to make space tourism profitable. Similarly, the private space company SpaceX has developed plans to send paying citizens to Mars. Last year, billionaire Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, announced his company’s intention to land a rocket on Mars by 2018 and eventually start a colony of 80,000 people.
Are corporations really the future leaders of space exploration? Not everyone is convinced. “Private enterprise cannot lead a space frontier,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told The Politic. “They have never led a frontier in the history of cultures, if that frontier was expensive, dangerous, with uncertain risks. When that happens, you can’t value it in the capital markets. Private enterprise comes into the fold after governments have explored the frontiers, drawn the maps, assessed the danger points, and understood the risks.”
For NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, the alleged competition between NASA and private space organizations simply does not exist. “The real competition is between private space companies,” he told The Politic. “SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, are three very strong competitors right now to see who is going to get NASA’s contract to take humans to the International Space Station. It is industry versus industry to determine who is going to be the winner in carrying humans to places like the ISS and other destinations we will develop in the coming years.”
Currently, NASA lacks the capability to launch humans into orbit, so it relies on private companies to transport astronauts to the International Space Station to perform servicing missions. Thus, the private companies are really working for NASA, and the real competition is for which company’s bid NASA accepts. Contracting these transportation services to private companies then frees up time and resources for NASA to spend on what Bolden characterized as its most important goal: deep-space exploration.
Human spaceflight has never reached an asteroid, for instance. But NASA has spent $2.8 billion to launch an asteroid into lunar orbit, with the intention of eventually sending astronauts to it. NASA is interested in exploring asteroids for a variety of reasons, including exploitation for economic gain.
“Asteroids [contain] industrial materials that we can use to set up manufacturing plants that could serve as the basis for a future thriving economy,” said Tom Jones, a former NASA astronaut and advisor at Planetary Resources. If astronauts were able to extract valuable resources from asteroids not found on Earth, Jones explained, these materials would create new industries and employment opportunities in the U.S.
Perhaps the most compelling reason NASA is focusing on asteroids is to prepare for future expeditions to Mars. Both President Obama and Bolden have promised to send a man into Mars’ orbit by the 2030s, and asteroid exploration is the first step in achieving this goal. Bolden confirmed that asteroid exploration would have lots of spillover effects for Mars missions. We must “[refine] our life-support systems for humans traveling to [outer space],” Bolden said, “as right now the life-support systems that we have are not as resilient and robust as we need them to be for what could be a three-year journey to and from Mars.”
“By designing the solar electric propulsion system that we intend to use to move the asteroid, we again are finding a new propulsion method of sending large cargo and the like to Mars,” Bolden continued. “So most of what we are doing and hoping to do with the asteroid is actually in preparation for sending humans to Mars.”
Today, Mars seems like America’s most promising springboard for expansion. Americans have always dreamed of extending their frontier, after all, and pushing deeper into the unknown. “It is sort of like humans deciding to go across the Mississippi River,” Bolden explained. “They didn’t decide they wanted to do it just to see what was over there and come back to the East Coast. They settled there. Then they crossed the Rockies and settled there. Then they got to the West Coast and they still weren’t happy. That’s just human nature.”
“I think [humans] want to live somewhere else, in addition to Earth. That’s not to replace Earth, but in addition to Earth. And so the ultimate goal of NASA’s endeavors in trying to get humans to Mars is so that humanity can live there one day.”
While Bolden stressed Mars’ importance to enhancing the living opportunities for Americans, Mars may also have great political value for the United States. Tyson argued that international competition affects NASA’s desire to be at the forefront of deep-space exploration. “If China said, ‘Let’s put a military base on Mars,’ we would be on Mars in ten months,” he said. Just as Americans were galvanized to shift the balance of the space race when the Soviets were dominating, Tyson contended, a credible foreign threat to settle Mars could motivate Americans to assert hegemony by increasing the size and scope of NASA.
No matter the specific size of its budget or the growth in private space companies, NASA is not going to “fall from space,” Bolden said. Private agencies will perform contract work for NASA and allow the agency to concentrate more fully on deep-space exploration. Yet the ultimate success of these missions rests in the hands of the American public.
The primary challenge for sending Americans to Mars, Bolden explained, is not technological but “actually fiscal, and a matter of national will.” In order to accomplish its ambitious goals, NASA will require sustained federal funding and a popular mandate. It is thanks to substantial public support, after all, that NASA has been critical in countless scientific breakthroughs, from GPS and the Internet to Tempur-pedic mattresses and the cordless vacuum. “I could go on and on,” Bolden said, “but that makes a difference in people’s lives.”