Private Companies Are Winning the Race to Mars

Photo courtesy of SpaceXSpaceX launched the Falcon 9 rocket in 2014. This Saturday, another Falcon 9 will be launched, carrying the company's first internet satellites.

As a famous TV show used to say, “Space is the final frontier.” However, space and, by extension, space travel and exploration, the subject of that same show, is being privatized by billion dollar moguls, such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos. President Donald Trump has even proposed turning the International Space Station into a private venture, according to the Washington Post. This isn’t a positive outlook for the future of our planet and any future beyond Earth endeavors, because private companies appear more focused on publicity or financial gain rather than scientific advancement.

Sure, it’s super cool to see the most powerful rocket in history shooting a full-sized car into space, but what purpose does that serve in the larger picture, ignoring the fact there’s now a full-sized car floating just outside our atmosphere? Yes, we discovered the SpaceX Falcon Heavy works, and one day we might use it to send people back to the moon as Trump ordered in Space Policy Directive 1. However, this federal policy would require NASA to lead the endeavour — not SpaceX.

In the heyday of space exploration, it was a race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, backed by bipartisan government interest and billions of dollars of funding and research. Today, NASA has a budget of just $19 billion, while total U.S government spending is nearly $4 trillion. You can buy a couple of NBA teams with that money, and that’s peanuts compared to what will be needed to achieve Trump’s goal of returning to the moon by 2020. It’s certainly short of what will be needed to fund a manned mission to Mars.

This lack of funding for one of the world’s foremost space agencies is further damaging when taking into account NASA’s own heavy lift rocket. The Space Launch System, the NASA equivalent to the recently launched SpaceX Falcon Heavy, won’t be ready for its first test launch until at least 2019, according to NASA, and even then it’ll take several years following that to launch a manned mission. Worse still is, since the Space Shuttle program was shuttered in 2011, manned missions to the International Space Station (ISS) can only be launched by the Russian Soyuz rockets from Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in Kazakhstan. And the only way for the ISS to be resupplied is with the use of SpaceX’s Dragon capsules or by using Orbital ATK launch vehicles, according to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services.  

In short, the only way for American astronauts to reach the ISS is on a foreign rocket launched from foreign soil, and in order to keep them supplied is through the use of a private company’s launch vehicle. NASA has to rely on private entities and foreign governments to launch its astronauts into space, and that limits NASA’s ability to explore the universe around us. This lack of funding is already proving damaging to NASA’s mission as according to the president’s 2019 request, funding for the ISS by 2025 and five planned Earth science missions including a multibillion dollar infrared telescope have already been cut.   

Allowing private companies to work with NASA isn’t the worst thing in the world. SpaceX has made leaps and bounds advancing reusable rocket technology, such as boosters that can land on their own and be used multiple times, versus single-use rockets. Rockets and capsules have kept the ISS well-stocked with consumable supplies, such as ready-made meals and scientific experiments over the past decade.

Another example is Virgin Galactic, a commercial company dedicated to providing suborbital flights to space tourists and those willing to shell out the money to reach for the stars.

That sounds good, but the price of just one spaceflight on a Virgin Galactic spacecraft costs $250,000, an increase of 25 percent from the original $200,000 (not pocket change either). Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder Richard Branson himself has stated, “The time is right for a temporary price hike. We felt that … we ought to be charging inflation.” Rather than focusing on the mission to “democratize space,” Virgin figured the time was right to jack up the price of its spaceflights.

Additionally, SpaceX currently has a backlog of more than $12 billion worth of launches on its plate, and that’s just for 2018, according to SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability, Hans Koenigsmann. How can we learn more about the universe if we have to shell out huge amounts of money to companies whose first priority is their bottom line and second priority is scientific advancement?

The solution to this problem is very simple: Give NASA a blank check. Imagine what NASA could do if you gave it even half the budget the U.S military is given each year. It’s a well-known fact the U.S military is shockingly overfunded. U.S military spending, which is at $611 billion dollars, is greater than the next eight nations combined at $595 billion dollars. Give even a 10th of that to NASA, and we’ll be on the moon again within 10 years, Mars in 20. NASA has been at this rocket stuff for longer than any private corporation, yet it lags behind in almost every way. It’s high time they be given a chance to catch up.

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