Fewer than a handful of words conjure such feelings of amazement, wonder, and curiosity. From the Moon Landing to the Space Shuttle Program, the U.S. Government arguably has had no better success story than NASA and our nation’s collective quest to reach the outer limits of our galaxy. Lately, however, it has not been astronauts clad in white space suits adorned with American flag patches being greeted by the President at Cape Canaveral after they return home from a successful mission making headlines. Instead, the latest and greatest in space travel has come from the West Coast, and the mind of eccentric billionaire inventor Elon Musk.
Musk’s company, SpaceX has made significant strides in facets of space travel that NASA has had significant struggles with, and, for the most part, has made them without significant government intervention (SpaceX does receive federal subsidies worth less than one-quarter of NASA’s budget). Where SpaceX beats NASA by a longshot is in the reusability and cost-effectiveness of their ventures into space.
SpaceX beat NASA in developing reusable rockets that can land themselves instead of crash landing, whereas NASA’s thirty-year-long struggle to create a reliable Space Shuttle program ultimately led to its shuttering by the Obama Administration. Even more intriguing is that SpaceX has been supplying the International Space Station (ISS) with its “Dragon” spacecraft, and just this past week flexed its reliability muscles once again by launching a reused rocket and spaceship into orbit to resupply the ISS.
Until the 2010’s, space had exclusively been the realm of government. Satellites were launched into orbit by NASA, NASA went to the Moon, NASA built the ISS, NASA started the Space Shuttle Program, and NASA was going to be the first to put a man on Mars. Today, the future of space travel does not solely belong to the Federal Government. Instead, the future of space travel is a relative unknown. Will companies like Musk’s SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic reinvent space travel to be affordable, accessible, and as ubiquitous as airlines? In twenty years will the New York Times front page read “Musk on Mars” or will space travel once again be something that the American people put their collective will (and tax dollars) into?
One rather important and ambiguous question that we as Americans must answer is the role space will play in national defense. President Trump recently announced that he is instructing the Department of Defense to create the sixth branch of the United States military, Space Force. Regardless of the feasibility of establishing an entirely new branch of the military as the US experiences massive budget deficits and an ever increasing national debt, the introduction of a Space Force actually does make some sense.
Russia and China, arguably the two greatest geopolitical foes of the US, have already announced the planning of or currently have their own version of Space Forces, and, as Trump stated during the announcement, “We must have American dominance in space.” If America does not have total military dominance of space, as we currently do on air, land, and sea, we open ourselves up a flurry of catastrophic calamities. From cyberattacks on scales we have never seen, EMP attacks that are indefensible from Earth, to potential missile attacks from modern-day versions of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program (this time from cosmonauts, not stormtroopers), and a whole host of other devastating attacks from enemies to freedom.
When will we reach Mars? Will we colonize the moon or send satellites to the outer edges of the Milky Way? Only time will tell, and only hard work, ingenuity, and a belief that space is the last conquerable frontier can make anything possible. What is for certain though, is that the ways in which we view space travel and space itself are changing. In order to ensure that the change is for the good, America must lead from ahead and be the first to blast-off into the future.