Forty years ago, it was widely believed that the United States would travel to Mars by 2000. It’s now 2010, and it’s unlikely we’ll launch a manned spacecraft to Mars before 2040. Predicting the future of spaceflight is literally rocket science, and it’s hard to know if private spaceflight will be a sustainable business.
There are a number of unanswered questions regarding the commercial viability of spaceflight. A small number of companies, including Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace, are currently investigating the possibilities. The latter, founded by Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow, aims to put inflatable space hotels into orbit. It’s a lofty goal, and it’s unclear if there’s a real market for such a stay.
Private space ventures, it follows, are subject to the business cycle. Exciting a prospect as it is, it’s uncertain if a long-term market truly exists for anything other than launching cargo and satellites.
A year and a half ago, one imagined that plenty of people would fork over the six figures that would be necessary to participate in space tourism. Since the recent market contraction, it’s a lot less clear who will pay for this luxury.
In the 1990s, the joint public-private sector space plane, the Venturestar, consumed $1.2 billion before a scaled-down prototype failed. The entire project was abandoned. It was an enormous waste of time and valuable resources. For this reason, the best route forward is to continue to fund public endeavors, like NASA, while still subsidizing the private market.
NASA technology has played a huge role in developing modern technology. The array of devices derived from NASA research and development is enormous. Without satellites, there could be no GPS and no cell phone. Similarly derived from NASA research are the cochlear implant, grooved roads and the computer mouse. NASA fulfills a role much greater than simply putting humans into orbit. It’s a technological incubator.
And NASA allows for pure scientific research. There isn’t room in the market for that at this point. It may not seem as economically vital, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to learn about the universe.
This doesn’t mean that it’s sensible to keep NASA around forever. The private sector may one day fulfill all of our stellar needs. That day certainly isn’t here, however, and it’s unclear how far off it is. One ought to expect similarly positive externalities of private space companies. For this reason, the federal government should help foster these through subsidies.
This is the route President Barack Obama is taking, and it’s the right one. He has promised a $6-billion increase in the NASA budget over five years. Obama also called for $6.1 billion to fund private space companies, hoping to find a privately-built craft that can supply the International Space Station. He’s added $51.5 million to NASA’s biomedical research on humans budget, too.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has criticized Obama for his latest budget. “The president has sent Congress a budget proposal that contains more spending, more borrowing and more taxes,” read a recent statement from his office. But Cornyn has simultaneously criticized Obama for not spending enough on the Project Constellation.
As emotional and glorious as another trip to the moon may seem, it’s not the best use of NASA money. Biomedical research and other projects are more likely to yield the positive externalities, which justify the agency in an economic sense. Cornyn claims that neglecting the moon project will lead to a decrease in the country’s “global status.” This is nonsense.
His criticisms are at best ignorant and at worst an abusive politicization of science. There’s plenty to criticize in our president’s agenda, but this isn’t one of them.
Jordan Birnholtz is an LSA freshman.