The space race is not over yet — and the stakes are as high as ever

Thirty years ago, as footage of the Challenger space shuttle explosion streamed across television screens, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation to reassure citizens that the tragedy would not stop American space exploration.

“It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery,” Reagan said. That sentiment — that the spirit of discovery is at the core of space exploration — remains central to NASA’s operating mission today, even as the agency’s budget flat-lines and the feasibility of future missions is questioned.

More recently, discussions of the future of space exploration have shifted. Last summer, as the New Horizons spacecraft sped past Pluto to observe the dwarf planet for the first time in history, President Obama lauded the achievement as “a great day for discovery and American leadership.” But only a few months later, he signed into law legislation that recognizes the right of private companies to own material mined from asteroids in the solar system.

In general, there seems to be a growing focus on more benefits-driven missions like the colonization of Mars or asteroid mining. Tech giants across the country have been excitedly eyeing what could be a lucrative transition from academic exploration to an approach that is more commercial. And behind this transformation is a philosophical question about the role of the government in an innovative economy.

The privatization of space exploration isn’t new. Much of the United States’ work in space is already accomplished through government contracts with private companies: Lockheed Martin won the contract to build and launch the New Horizons probe, and NASA chose SpaceX and a few of its rivals to resupply the International Space Station through 2024. Still, the primary objective for these projects was to serve the interests of science and discovery rather than the goals of the companies, which is why a growing trend toward commercialization is so notable.

Billion-dollar government investments into the space program have long been rationalized in academic terms, as steps toward figuring out humankind’s place in the universe. Economic spillovers stemming from space innovation — satellite technologies, memory foam mattresses and Michael Phelps’s swimwear, to name a few — served as retroactive justifications.

But for many, a deeper philosophical justification came from proving that a liberal market economy could match up in greatness to the government-led system of the Soviet Union. As Communist powers began making great strides in space exploration in the mid-20th century, President Kennedy pushed to keep pace. Despite limited market incentives to expand space exploration, it was the United States that got to the moon first — a major ideological win for the liberal world. The takeaway was that government does have a major role to play in the innovative economy, by motivating the brilliant minds of the the free-market system to achieve greatness.

Yet the recent shift toward commercialization poses a new question about how much these programs should continue to rely on government funding. Today, there’s only tepid interest in making another trip to the moon; as Obama says, “We’ve been there before.” Sending people to Mars will take decades — and billions of dollars. And while the American public is excited for the next space mission, we hesitate when it comes to paying for it.

So the question now is: What’s the next big step? And who will — and should — fund it?

According to free-market conservatives, the next exciting moment will come when we completely hand over the space shuttle keys to private innovators such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeffrey P. Bezos (founder of Blue Origin and owner of The Post). These entrepreneurs have the vision and money to take on the challenge, and they also frame it around a profit motive. Why keep government-funded missions going if the private sphere can do it on its own — without building a $9 billion space shuttle that has no destination in sight? Why spend all that money photographing rocks on planets we’ll never touch if we could build homes or drill for resources in the asteroid belt nearby?

But the costs would be astronomical, the risks daunting and the upside still not guaranteed, which is why there are plenty of skeptics who don’t buy into the idea that private companies will be able do away with the role (and resources) of the government. SpaceX, for example, has revolutionized the cost of spaceflight, but the company almost ran out of money before proving that it could put a rocket into orbit without the help of government funding. Now, it relies on government contracts for revenue.

Still, it is hard to ignore the massive gains that the tech industry has already made. The moment SpaceX was able to safely land its Falcon 9 rocket upright (after months of having their rockets explode on takeoff or landing), Musk’s criticism of the government-led space industry as being too risk-averse and bureaucratic suddenly seemed to carry legitimate weight.

And those and other critiques come at a time when the United States must rely on Russian rockets to get astronauts into orbit and when China has largely become known as the most ambitious nation in the world in terms of space programs. Any suggestion that the space race is over and that the United States has permanently secured a spot as the world’s top space explorer is sorely mistaken. The race is still on.

Over time, the differences in narrative and goals will continue to solidify. Those touting the courageous risk-taking of billionaire capitalists will likely overlook or play down the government support needed to originally build the technology of the space industry. On the other hand, opponents of the free-market approach will resist space exploration as a profit-seeking enterprise and advocate for the government to protect space missions from insatiable exploitation. Tragically, both sides will oversimplify the complex relationship that government has had in developing technology.

This, of course, is nothing new. People have used their economic philosophies to build the narratives of great American technology for centuries, from the railroad to electricity to automobiles to the Internet. An honest assessment is that innovation is much more complicated, and the roles of government and businesses are more ill-defined than theory would lead us to believe.

Space exploration will undoubtedly fall victim to the same one-sided economic ideologies. But as the arguments continue, reflecting on the shifting attitudes around space exploration may tell us more about how our society opts to design itself than about the universe around it.

Robert Gebelhoff contributes to The Washington Post's Opinions section.

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