In The News Quiz November 29, 2021

Who Will Lead the U.S. into Outer Space?

Fifty years ago, no part of the U.S. government was more popular than NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. NASA achieved the first moon landing in 1969 (and five more over the next three years), launched spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond, and planned the first human explorations of Mars. More recently, however, NASA’s popularity has been dentedamid a series of postponed projects, cost overruns, and tragedies—most notably losing two space shuttles to disastrous accidents, in 1986 and 2003. By the mid-1990s, Americans were evenly split on the question of whether the costs of NASA’s space program were justifiable.

Today NASA’s public popularity has returned to levels not seen since its 1960s/early 1970s heyday. (A highlight this year: NASA’s much-publicized Mars landing.) Yet U.S. space flight is increasingly carried out by private companies, with space explorers in the news who are not NASA-trained astronauts but billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, founder-CEOs of Tesla and Amazon respectively. NASA made news this week, but not for dazzling outer-space achievements: The agency affirmed that astronauts’ return to the moon—announced by President Obama back in 2008 and supported by successive Presidents Trump and Biden—would be delayed once again, at least until 2028. Meanwhile, the next orbital U.S. space flight will be launched by SpaceX—privately owned by Musk—with costs paid by a wealthy businessman who made his fortune not in aeronautics or rocketry but online payments consulting. None of the four astronauts on the flight have prior space training, or any experience working for NASA.

The accelerating privatization of space raises concerns. NASA’s role has long been to mount exploratory projects in space on behalf of scientific knowledge: the original moon landings, for example, or launching the Hubble Space Telescope, neither of which had private investors to pay back. (Hubble data, free to researchers everywhere, has greatly advanced our understanding of space, all the way back to the “Big Bang.”)

Critics also worry about accountability—how will flights be regulated for safety? And who should police inevitable conflicts in outer space, as future private firms clash over everything from trade routes to planetary colonization? Another concern is that outer-space exploration will be carried out by wealthy Americans acting as space tourists, not trained NASA astronauts performing scientific experiments. (SpaceX is now worth nearly $75 billion—more than three times NASA’s annual budget.)

What do you think? Should space exploration be “outsourced” to private companies and the wealthy individuals who own them? Or does the emerging era represent opportunities for partnership between government and private individuals?

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