Recently, relations between Russia and the United States have worsened dramatically due to the annexation of Crimea, the quasi-conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the probable destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by Russian-funded separatists. The United States is threatening serious sanctions, including banning high-tech exports to Russia.
The United States paid Russia 60 million dollars per American astronaut to get access to the Space Station. Russia pledged tit-for-tat measures in revenge for U.S. sanctions, by refusing to allow Americans access to our 150 billion-dollar International Space Station, of which the United States paid 84 percent of the cost. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin even threatened to cut off American access to the station, saying “I propose that the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline.” Sadly, today NASA cannot put men into space without Russian cooperation and hasn’t done so for years. The United States lacks the manned spaceflight capability to resupply and visit the ISS for the first time since 1961.
Currently, two Americans, Gregory Reid Wiseman and Steven Ray Swanson, and one German, Alexander Gerst, are stranded on the International Space Station with three Russians. Effectively, the Russian Federation is holding the astronauts hostage.
Roughly 45 years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. They came in peace for all mankind and they were Americans. Their “one small step” sent a powerful message to the Soviet Union that the United States was technologically unchallengeable and provided America ample “soft power” in the rest of the world. Today however, NASA’s troubled Constellation program, meant to replace the aging Space Shuttle fleet, was canceled after most of the $230 billion of dollars allocated for it was spent. NASA today doesn’t have the incentive to pursue its primary mission of exploration and scientific inquiry. It is much more concerned with “Muslim Outreach.” So how can we return the two astronauts to Earth without Russian help and continue mankind’s expansion into space?
As usual, the American private sector has shown that it can do what the American government cannot. SpaceX, the brainchild of PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, has answered with the Falcon 9/Dragon space launch system. The Dragon capsule recently made headlines as the first, unmanned, private craft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Each Falcon 9 launch costs around $54 million. If the space shuttle were around today, it would cost more than $1.6 billion per launch.
That’s a great example of the private sector’s amazing ability to out-compete government bureaucracy. One shuttle launch could pay for 29 SpaceX launches, and leave $34 million to spare. The Falcon 9/Dragon system has been proven to be far safer than the Russian Soyuz system and is expected to be operational for manned flight by mid-2015. Fortunately, the American spirit of exploration and innovation is alive and well in the private sector. If necessary, SpaceX could likely rescue the ISS astronauts, sending a powerful signal to the Putin regime that America will not tolerate blackmail.
Unfortunately, the government has been moving in the opposite direction. Under President Obama’s NASA budget, money is shifted from the successful parts of NASA, like its robotic exploration program, to areas that produce nothing tangible, such as its environmental sciences program and “outreach.” Obama’s budget manages to cut every part of NASA that actually works, including planetary science programs, technological development programs, and many important future Mars missions — without saving any money. As the deceased Neil Armstrong put it, NASA is basically doomed to yet another decade of doing nothing in space.
NASA has actually been reduced to holding bake sales to try to convince lawmakers to save these programs. Unfortunately for the agency, it doesn’t have a strong case. The original cost estimates to develop new launch vehicles for the George H.W. Bush-era Space Exploration Initiative, projected to stretch across three decades, typically fell in the range of $400 to $500 billion. Contrast that with the $300 million spent by SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9 in a little over four years. However, America shouldn’t stop when we return our astronauts to Earth.
Two different American presidents since John F. Kennedy have attempted to renew the vision of NASA by setting their sights on the next logical step for human spaceflight, Mars. The Red Planet has everything a human mission could ever need: geothermal energy, water, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, a weak magnetic field, complex geology which created mineral ore, and even the convenience of a nearly 24 hour day. Mars is a place humanity could visit or even colonize.
Technologically, America is far better prepared to visit Mars today than it was to visit the Moon directly after President Kennedy’s commitment. The only serious obstacles to an American Mars mission or a more general expansion of the space program through the private sector are political in nature. Acquiring sufficient funding for such a program through the appropriations processes of Congress has proven to be much more difficult than actually getting a manned spacecraft to Mars. Modern, private sector plans such as Mars Direct and Mars to Stay have been scored by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in the $30 billion range, far less than the $400 to $500 billion of previous attempts.
Private American space firms are currently pursuing accomplishments beyond those of SpaceX, and more advanced and ambitious than the entire government space programs of China and the European Union. Bigelow Aerospace, for example, has created an expandable hotel in space and even launched two component units into orbit. It is now possible to buy a ticket for a suborbital spaceflight today with Virgin Galactic. Mars One is even planning a private Mars mission by 2023, decades ahead of NASA’s official schedule.
Today America is the most dominant nation on Earth, but in the minds of far too many outside the United States, the face of that dominance is a Predator drone or an American corporation tapping natural resources. In geopolitical terms, we lack “soft power.” By going to the Moon 45 years ago, the United States did something generous and uplifting for all mankind. Apollo program was widely seen as a great triumph of man over nature and it massively increased American “soft power” for quite some time. Apollo caused the rest of the world to consider America to be the leader in technological innovation and just about everything else. Today, we have the technological capability to send the first representatives to walk on another planet. This would essentially cement the vision of America as the technological innovator into the minds of the world. Such a feat would be an astonishing gift for all mankind and would certainly improve life both in, and outside, the United States. Working with private space companies like SpaceX could dramatically reduce the cost of going to Mars, while promoting the American system of capitalism at home and abroad.
The new age of exploration, a competitive, profit-driven space race against the limits of human imagination, is only just beginning. Let’s hope NASA gets on board.
Andrew Follett is a Master’s of Public Policy Candidate in Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University. He previously worked with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars in association with NASA’s Langley Research Center to identify the origin of Martian crustal magnetic fields, how the fields correlated with craters on Mars, and if these magnetic fields could be used as radiation shielding for future astronauts.