A loss of pride in spaceflight

Written By Mick Stinelli, Columnist

Watching a rocket lift off is something that will always spark joy in my heart. The image of a man-made creation lifting our Earthbound bodies beyond the atmosphere is a genuinely awe inspiring feat. 50 years ago, this was an incredible event; now it seems to happen nearly every week.

SpaceX, the aerospace manufacturer founded by Elon Musk, made an unmanned flight to the International Space Station just last week. It was the first step to made-in-America spaceflight after years of NASA using Russian rockets.

“Today’s successful launch marks a new chapter in American excellence, getting us closer to once again flying American Astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wrote after liftoff.

It was a moment of pride for some, especially NASA. Though it can be hard to be proud of something that has happened seemingly independent of our help.

NASA was generously funded by taxpayer dollars for years. At its peak in 1966, it received $43.5 billion in today’s money, over four percent of that year’s federal budget. In 2018, funding for NASA accounted for less than one percent of the budget. This cut in funding for space exploration has given rise to companies like SpaceX, who see an opportunity to create public-private partnerships in spaceflight.

Spending fewer of our tax dollars on exploration comes at a cost. When we watch SpaceX rockets lift off, we are awestruck by the ingenuity of these instruments. They are incredible; the Falcon 9 rocket is able to land vertically, a maneuver requiring almost incomprehensible precision. That ingenuity, however, comes at the price of our collective pride.

When Americans watched men walk on the moon 50 years ago, they were watching their tax dollars at work. Apollo 11 captured the eyes and minds of the nation, but once it was over, many Americans seemed to think man’s mission to space was complete. By 2004, President George W. Bush announced the coming end of the Space Shuttle program; it officially ended in 2011.

Now when we watch American-made spacecraft leave the Earth, it’s likely they are funded by eccentric billionaires rather than the American people. When that is the case, we lose the collective gratification the country shared when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the lunar surface. What we’re seeing isn’t an American achievement; rather, it’s the achievement of some phenomenally wealthy person willing to lose a few million dollars.

More than 72 percent of Americans agree it is essential that the US remains a leader in space exploration, according to a poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center. However, the current administration seeks not to explore space as much as they seek to command it.

“Over the past 60 years, the United States has assembled the world’s largest, most sophisticated constellation of military and intelligence satellites,” Vice President Mike Pence wrote in the Washington Post last week. “And we have forged the technology to leverage US power in space here on Earth, giving our war-fighters and intelligence community a strategic advantage and increasing the agility, precision and lethality of our military.”

The vice president describes space not as a great frontier, but as a conquest, another tool to “leverage” to in the military-industrial complex.

Every year, our country spends more and more money on our military. Perhaps it is time to put some of that money aside and spend it on science, research and exploration. In that same Pew Research poll, 42 percent of Americans said they would like to go to space. The top two reasons: to experience something unique and to see the view of Earth from space.

That sense of exploration, of trying and seeing something new and exciting, is exactly why we should give NASA more funding. Most likely we’ll learn something new about the universe; at the very least, we should go just for the view.