Space for Its Own Sake

MATTHEW AGUIRRE

NASA shuttleDuring the Cold War, the space race captured the hearts and minds of a generation. Here were wonders straight from science fiction becoming a reality before their very eyes – spaceships were being launched, satellites were whizzing around the earth, and Neil Armstrong, a Navy man from Ohio, became the first one of us to set foot on the moon. These children of the sixties and seventies were inspired by intellectual giants who sought to do the impossible. But that was forty years ago. Today, a historically small budget places considerable limits on our spacefaring ambitions. NASA does a good job of making its dollars stretch, but the question still arises: where have all our dreamers gone? Where is our national pride, our entrepreneurial spirit, our courage to do the impossible?

The answer is simple: it’s gone to the private sector. Whether it’s the new iPhone or latest model sports car, the innovations that are displayed to the public come from the corporate realm of individual ownership. Naturally, this has been the case for decades in virtually all economic sectors. However, extending this framework to outer space will prove to be problematic, because the kind of development that private spacefaring companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Virgin Galactic plan on pursuing is different from the exploration government agencies like NASA have in mind. This difference can be summed up in one word: profit.

The ultimate goal of private enterprise is to enhance the wealth of its owners, but space exploration, when done through an agency like NASA, has a very different burden in legitimizing its existence – specifically, that the project must be beneficial to the nation or humanity at large. The inevitable result of this is that spacefaring projects that come from the private sector will either cater to the financial elites by offering some form of space tourism or be motivated by the prospect of resource extraction (e.g. asteroid mining). Even those corporations that provide services to a majority of people or that claim to be consumer-focused have their own survival as priority number one: and at the end of the day, that means turning a profit. But while there is nothing inherently problematic with this most basic business practice, the limitations of private-sector driven space exploration pose significant issues in light of the immense potential space has for effecting scientific curiosity in future generations.

Even after forty years of exploration via satellites, planetary rovers, deep space probes, and direct human presence, there is still much to learn from space.

Even after forty years of exploration via satellites, planetary rovers, deep space probes, and direct human presence, there is still much to learn from space. Our endeavors have yielded treasure troves of data that further our understanding of the universe and life itself, and have created a number of spinoff technologies. These devices were invented for a specific purpose in space but have found consumer adaptations in the fields of medicine, communication, and the technological and aerospace industries. The vast potential for discovery through space exploration means that these should be in the foreground of our national policymaking. After all, these technologies and discoveries have the potential to benefit everyone, and universally increase the quality of life for the citizens of Earth.

Transitioning space exploration from the public to the private sector doesn’t necessarily mean that these discoveries will cease; rather, that they will be used in different ways. As is seen in the pharmaceutical industry, discoveries that are made quickly become proprietary knowledge of the corporation that made them. This would likely be the fate of future scientific discoveries and spinoff technologies made by private space corporations of the future, which is at odds with the scientific endeavor to better understand and adapt to the world around us. This attitude, while problematic in itself, suggests a more systemic issue with privatizing space exploration.

Viewing space through a strictly utilitarian, profit-based lens glosses over the wide-ranging possibilities of exploring outer space outside a business-centric context. Purely scientific endeavors  that give us a better understanding of the origin and ultimate fate of the universe, like the study of cosmic wave backgrounds left over from the Big Bang, would disappear. These missions that seek to expand our knowledge of the universe, rather than our pocketbooks, are the ones are most critical for preserving our scientific interests. NASA once shone as a triumphant beacon in the sky, celebrating human curiosity and inspiring poets and philosophers alike to dream about the future. Its programs were not directed towards profit, but rather toward a greater awareness of life’s interconnectedness and fragility. It’s high time we allot them the funds they need to keep inspiring us.

Matthew Aguirre is a Brevia staff writer.  He can be reached at maguirre@college.harvard.edu.