Arabian: Spaced Out

The United States should renew its commitment to space exploration.

by Kami Arabian | 1/7/21 2:00am

On Jan. 31, 1958, the U.S. launched its first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit, marking the nation’s entry into the space race — a rivalry with the Soviet Union over the achievements of the two states’ respective space programs. With many firsts — the first satellite, dog and man in orbit and the first man on the moon — this era was one of the most intense bursts of scientific innovation in human history. However, for all its glory, the space race suffered from one key weakness that led to its early and dramatic decline: It was motivated not by a desire to advance mankind, but by fear of the enemy. The U.S. should not make this mistake again; it must work to renew its long-term investments into space exploration.

When the geopolitical tensions of the Cold War slackened in the later 20th century, so too did the space race. Ever since, in the absence of any serious foreign competitor, the American government has gradually lost interest in the cosmic frontier. Over the last half century, elected officials have consistently diverted resources away from NASA, leading to missions that are both less frequent and less ambitious. While at the height of the space race NASA funds constituted about 4.4% of U.S. spending, the agency’s budget fell to about 0.84% by 1980 and by 2015 as low as about 0.47%. 

The U.S.’ declining interest in space exploration is cause for concern because, as many experts believe, our current choices will have grave implications for the future of the human species. Throughout his life, the late British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking warned that, unless mankind moves beyond our single planet at some point in the near future, we risk extinction. Of course, the impact of a large asteroid or the eruption of a supervolcano may be highly unlikely at any given moment. However, as Hawking points out, this risk adds up over time, becoming “a near certainty in the next 1,000 or 10,000 years.” 

In addition to such an event, there are countless other risks associated with remaining on a single planet. Earth — with its 7.8 billion people, most likely irreversible climate change, deforestation, freshwater depletion, pollution, resource shortages and other ecological challenges — cannot support life indefinitely. While establishing colonies on other planets may seem costly at first, it is a small price to pay for the continuation of the human species.

Fortunately, in recent years, private space corporations — such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — have increased the scope of their operations. However, there are important projects — arriving at an exoplanet that can support life, for instance — that cannot yield profit in a single lifetime, so it is unreasonable to expect a profit-driven entity to financially justify such costs without NASA’s support. Private corporations cannot be expected to replace NASA, which can pursue space exploration without being constrained by a need for financial gain. 

In its first 10 years, SpaceX operated with a budget of about $1 billion, with $400-500 million of this amount coming from its contracts with NASA. Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive officer of SpaceX has on many occasions thanked NASA for its support, and the feeling is mutual. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has said that his agency’s investments into SpaceX have been beneficial “not just for human space exploration, but beneficial for the economy.” With a larger budget, NASA could increase its commercial partnerships, expediting the future of space exploration for generations to come.

In a country that currently faces a multitude of problems — a federal budget deficit, a lack of affordable healthcare, the threat of terrorism, a dramatic rise in poverty and a global pandemic, to name a few — taxpayers might hesitate to support spending that promises them no short-term benefits. However, history has shown that the solutions to mankind’s most prominent challenges require both ingenuity and long-term capital infusion, with a return arriving years after the initial investment. 

Advancements in science are sure to deliver a higher quality of life for billions of people and, more importantly, ensure the long-term viability of the human species — as long as we practice abundant patience and foresight. The U.S.’ investment in the cosmic frontier will surely pay off, and while our generation may not reap its rewards, as the famous proverb states: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”