by Lindsay Tausch
Four months away from the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, the United States has reason for renewed hope in the future of human space exploration. The commercial space sector is thriving; in early February, SpaceX launched Falcon Heavy, a rocket designed with an eye toward founder Elon Musk’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. The future of NASA is looking just as optimistic. Four days after the launch of Falcon Heavy, President Trump released a promising 2019 budget proposal for NASA, which requested additional funding as well as increased reliance on the commercial space sector. 2018 has seen renewed bipartisan support for NASA combined with meaningful strides in commercial space exploration, creating a rare scenario in which Democrats, Republicans, and the private sector all share enthusiasm for a common goal. Moreover, in the past few years, the United States has seen success in efforts to find mutually beneficial opportunities for cooperation between NASA and private companies. An examination of Trump’s budget proposal, public opinion regarding space exploration, and the efforts of companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences points to a possible reprieve from the stagnation of space exploration that the world has experienced in recent decades.
In general, Democrats tend to support increased governmental funding of public issues, whereas Republicans tend to support decreased funding. However, this is not the case for space exploration. In 2015, the Pew Research Center studied support among Americans for thirteen areas of government involvement, such as strengthening the economy and responding to natural disasters. The November study confirmed that Democrats generally favor government involvement. Keeping the country safe from terrorism was the only issue about which more Republicans (95 percent) than Democrats (93 percent) responded that the government should play a major role. The study found that 47 percent of American adults believe the government should play a major role in advancing space exploration. The December study found that NASA and the International Space Station both enjoy bipartisan support. Of particular note, the December study found that 58 percent of Democrats believe the government should play a major role in advancing space exploration, making it the area with the least Democratic support. In contrast, while only 47 percent of Republicans responded that the government should play a major role in advancing space exploration, two other areas received less Republican support. This suggests that when overall differences in opinion regarding government involvement are taken into account, Republicans support government funding of space programs slightly more than Democrats do.
The comparatively small margin between Democratic support (58 percent) and Republican support (47 percent) for government involvement in space exploration makes it a bipartisan issue. Trump’s 2019 Fiscal Year budget proposal confirms this claim. His $19.9 billion budget for NASA would provide a slight increase from its 2018 budget of $19.5, which itself was significantly higher than the NASA budgets that President Obama proposed during his administration. Trump’s support for NASA has found favor among Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology responsible for overseeing NASA met on March 7 to discuss the new proposal. Members from both parties shared concern for whether NASA was on track to land humans on Mars in 2033, a goal the Obama Administration had pressed. Reports describe the meeting as “friendly” and relatively unburdened by partisan agendas.
Trump’s proposal included instructions on how the $19.9 NASA budget should be spent, which included a particular focus on opportunities to combine public and private space exploration efforts. In a press release on February 12, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot summarized the direction that NASA would take this year. Lightfoot said, “In short, we are once again on a path to return to the Moon with an eye toward Mars,” reiterating the budget’s instruction to shift NASA’s immediate focus from Mars to the Moon. If approved, the budget proposal will end government funding of the International Space Station in 2025. In response, NASA will “begin relying on commercial partners for our low-Earth orbit and technology demonstration requirements.”
NASA’s willingness to rely on private companies, such as SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, and Virgin Galactic, may be necessary for the future of human space exploration. While NASA’s budget has enjoyed a slight increase during Trump’s presidency, it seems unlikely that the $19.9 billion budget will be sufficient to land humans on Mars in the near future. During the committee meeting on March 7, Lightfoot conceded that the landing would be “no earlier than 2033,” adding, “I’ll just leave it at that.” With NASA lacking the necessary funding, the burden therefore falls on private companies to bring about the renaissance of space exploration.
The political landscape is certainly favorable for private space exploration companies. In 2015, Congress passed the SPACE Act, which permits commercial enterprises to profit from natural resources that they extract from other planets. Billionaires such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson have created their own veritable Space Race, competing to get ahead in space tourism, shipping, and exploration. Each has found moderate success in its own area of focus, with SpaceX focused on interplanetary habitation, Blue Origin looking to lower spaceflight costs, and Virgin Galactic aiming to make space tourism a reality.
With support from Democrats and Republicans for both NASA and commercial space exploration, Americans can approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s iconic Moon landing with excitement for the new ventures we can expect to see in 2018.
Lindsay is a first-year student in the College studying economics.