By: Everett Zelson
On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. In total, 12 Americans have done so, but no human has set foot on the moon since 1972. The Space Race represented a less dangerous side of the Cold War, with America and the Soviet Union competing to advance to the forefront of technological innovation and space exploration. Both countries sought to win military and scientific supremacy in space. Investment into the superpowers’ space programs furthered science and education, leading to developments in the aerospace industry and consumer technology.
In 1966, the US military budget was only about 11 times larger than NASA’s. Today, the military budget is over 30 times larger. At its height, NASA gave a sense of national pride to the American people. It explored the unknown. Its endeavors would certainly be useful now, since finding a new inhabitable planet is beginning to become a priority.
Recently, a new player in the game of space exploration has emerged: SpaceX. SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s many companies, is attempting to commercialize space travel. Musk has been able to decrease the price of rockets to a fraction of the typical cost — and the products aren’t any worse than the more expensive ones: in fact, they’re far better. For example, SpaceX designed a radio for its rockets that is 20% lighter and 95% cheaper than those previously invented. The cost to build SpaceX’s Dragon, a spacecraft capable of reentering the atmosphere from Mars, totaled around $300 million. A similar project would have cost other companies between 10-30 times as much.
Privatization of an industry creates something extraordinary for technological advancement: competition. Competition forces corporations to make their products the best in their respective market so they can maximize their revenue. And that’s not a bad thing — competition is needed to create a strong, fast-growing economy. It is what drives car companies to create more fuel-efficient options, tech companies to create devices with larger screens and batteries, and sportswear companies to create lighter, more durable sneakers. The issue with space travel is that it is not at all a necessity, like some of those aforementioned products. Humans do not often spend their time thinking about which new planets to explore and which galaxies can maintain life. Because of this, NASA is needed to create an initial market for the space industry — a foundation upon which to build the future of the market. With a larger budget, NASA can continue to explore space and advance technology. Although the private industry is much more effective and cost-efficient, it is being spearheaded by a single man with loftier ambitions than almost anyone else on the planet and one who also happens to possess the needed resources to lead such an effort. If Elon Musk were to lose his fortune, growth in the private space industry would slow to a halt. The need for NASA remains relevant as other individual companies that have yet to catch on to the risky, expensive ways of space travel. NASA is, at this point, a safety net for humanity. In the future, unless we change our habits drastically, humans will need to find new places to inhabit. The odds of anyone but ambitious corporations finding and getting people to new planets are very slim. The desire of Musk to colonize Mars and save the human race has led to more advancements over the past decade than almost anything NASA has achieved in a quarter-century.
In the near future, the private space industry will become so large that NASA will be dwarfed in comparison. For now, however, funding NASA is needed to keep the hopes of discovering human-friendly planets alive.