“From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
The anger of Edgar Mitchel is powerfully resonant in tumultuous times. The rise of nationalism across the globe poses an existential threat to an established world order; the question remains if a suitable replacement exists. But a question rarely heard posed springs to mind: Will nationalist tendencies and a desire to search for meaning more powerful than simply waking up tomorrow cause humanity to look to the stars? Is the rise of nationalism going to coincide with an increase in state-funded space exploration?
The U.S.-Soviet Cold War saw the conflict for ideological supremacy extend beyond national borders. Proxy wars and space exploration became proving grounds for dominance throughout the decades. Looking back, it is evident that the launch of Sputnik and the creation of the American Apollo lunar-landing Program lead to the deification of astronauts and cosmonauts in both the Soviet Union and the United States. The space race became a symbol of hope amongst populaces who lived in fear and terror of conquering empires. As such, the famous “handshake in space” in 1975 represented more than a simple gesture; it was indicative of the start of de-escalation within the cultural zeitgeist.
Fast forward through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the wars of the Middle East to today. The Soviet Space Program collapsed in 1991 and, although it was replaced, hasn’t been the same since, with their significant contribution to space travel being a research study regarding the mating habits of geckos in zero gravity. In the United States, the percent of the federal budget dedicated to NASA, as high as 1% in 1993, currently sits at 0.5%. Although funding has increased in real terms since the 1960s, adjusting for inflation shows that funding has decreased by nearly a third since 1993. Yet the returns and contributions to general society from NASA, seen in Fig. 1, have become more tangible as the years pass. The space agency no longer deals in hope – but rather in ROI and supporting the increasing global dependence upon satellite arrays and internet communications.
A partial answer as to why NASA has felt comfortable pulling back is the lack of competition from national bodies. The Chinese Space Program has yet to rival it’s American counterpart, and horny geckos do not pose a threat to democracy. However, this may yet change; declining national economies and concerted pushes from super powers towards recapturing past “greatness” have the potential to create an environment where such a distraction would be welcome. However, the answer is probably not. Control of the Federal American houses is in the hands of fiscal conservatives, unlikely to increase funding towards discretionary spending within a congressional budget. Russia’s attempt to exert dominance is thus far limited to conflicts within the Asian and European continent to distract from troubles at home.
So where then does the burden fall? Decreased direct government-lead spending has lead to a direct uptick in interest on the part of starry-eyed capitalists. The most famous programs currently are SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Each has it’s success stories, flaws and champions, namely in the form of two billionaire moguls who own each respective company; Elon Musk of Tesla and SolarCity, and Richard Branson of the Virgin Empire.
SpaceX has focused upon developing re-useable rockets, making manned flight far cheaper than before, and piloting a mission to Mars within the next 10 years. Much of their funding is federally-based, with contracts issued to resupply the International Space Station, launch military satellites and a hope to launch US astronauts by the end of the decade. Virgin Galactic is focused upon making space tourism a reality, albeit in suborbital flight. Although scope differs, both men share a common and noble dream: to create a world for humanity extending beyond our planet.
Other organizations pushing for the cosmos include Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation(credited for bringing back the “space plane” design), XCor Aerospace and Airbus. Some push farther than others. Made in Space seeks to send 3D printers into orbit, thereby allowing for the creation of technologies that need not be designed to survive the rigors of orbital launch or re-entry. Ad Astra Rocket Company has designed electric and plasma thrusters capable of providing efficiency and supplying the thrust needed for long distance travel. And Planetary Resources is looking to meteorites with an eye towards mining the skies for riches, with backers ranging from Silicon Valley to Hollywood.
The space race represented hope to millions throughout the world. Those who witnessed it claim they will never forget Neil Armstrong’s first words, or the pride they felt watching an American plant a flag on the face of the moon. It was a testament to human ingenuity and achievement that we as a species were able to do such a momentous thing. Now, as competition to reach the stars ascends national boundaries, there has never been greater potential to see the world from afar. The burden now falls on us to continue the work once done by men and women we deified and christened as heroes. In times when the government does not hold the defining role of our lives, the burden falls on us to create something for ourselves.
“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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
That is how we move forward.