Just over fifty years ago, the United States landed 12 men on the moon in a series of historic missions that are still seen as a national triumph and have become deeply embedded as a cultural reference point in America’s DNA. Those landings have become synonymous with how we see ourselves as a people: Bold, adventuresome, heroic. The Apollo landings were the very embodiment of the American Dream, symbolic of a nation that can dare to do great, even impossible, things – and succeed.
In the aftermath of those glory days, there were heady dreams of exploring other planets, building space colonies and solar power satellites, and expanding humanity onto the High Frontier.
It didn’t happen.
We must try to understand why not.
Today, more than a generation since the heady Apollo era, we can support at best half a dozen human beings at any one time in low earth orbit (barely a hundred miles above the surface of our planet), until recently we lacked the capability to even launch our own astronauts that far (for a decade, we paid the Russians to carry them into space for us), and the budget to return to the moon fifty years later is tenuous at best.
While private space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are building the rockets to put people in space (SpaceX has successfully launched astronauts to the International Space Station since 2020), NASA’s capability to go into deep space is not yet proven, uses old 80s technology, is not reusable, and, therefore, it is too expensive to grow to any kind of scale more significant than a few launches per year.
The current plan is to put boots on the Moon in a few short years, build a base, and then go onward to Mars. But unless this time is different, delays are probable on the most ambitious and expensive of these schemes. It has happened before. America has a track record of delay and redesign driven by cost overruns and budgetary shortfalls.
Consider the recent past.
In 2009, a blue-ribbon commission of luminaries chartered by the Obama Administration reviewed the American space program and found deep flaws in our approach to human spaceflight. That commission argued that the space program was underfunded and falling behind. They said that to ‘advance humanity into space’, we needed a flexible approach that matched our means to our goals and would deliver a capability to launch astronauts into space to provide “inspiring moments” for the American public: The first visit to an asteroid, the first landing on Mars by humans, the first nation to return to the moon.
The Obama Administration promptly endorsed the recommendations of the 2009 Augustine Commission by announcing the goals of having astronauts visit an asteroid in the mid-2020s and putting Americans on Mars by the mid-2030s (and perhaps unintentionally delaying NASA’s dreams of returning to the moon with an ad-lib comment to the effect that it was little more than ‘been there, done that’).
Five years farther down the path, another commission of luminaries brought together by the National Research Council reported in 2014 that, once again, we were not funding our goals adequately and that on the current pathway to human exploration, we cannot afford to send missions off into space frequently enough to be able to meet our goals of landing men on Mars safely. That report admitted there was no single compelling reason to fund exploration (a stunning admission), that a mix of pragmatic and aspirational rationales was a worthy enough reason to justify the funding, and suggested that a modest 2.5% annual increase in NASA’s budget would be enough to meet the most important goals for exploration over the next 50 years, including landing a few astronauts on Mars.
In 2018, the Trump Administration re-focused NASA on returning American astronauts to the moon with what they dubbed the Artemis program and they even set an ambitious goal of landing the first crew by 2024. With this plan, the moon would be a stepping stone to Mars.
Today, as of this writing, an American rocket, the SLS, has made multiple failed attempts to launch on a practice run around the moon with crash test dummies for cargo. That mission will certainly happen soon enough and humans will be next. The ambition of returning to the moon is getting tantalizingly closer. But it doesn’t solve the real problem.
The real problem is that we are focused on the wrong thing.
We are focusing on the paradigm of space exploration – sending astronauts to explore other worlds, which is inherently a small-scale, very expensive business. I will argue with this essay that as a vision and strategy, space exploration is deeply flawed and potentially self-limiting.
At best, it gets us back to a future before we cancelled Apollo and scuttled the massive Saturn V rockets that once lofted our astronauts into the heavens, but does not resolve the reasons why we abandoned them in the first place. A similar fate may await the SLS and NASA’s boldest plans in a few short years if we are not careful.
What then makes for a stronger vision and strategy that is truly sustainable for the long-term?
A more fundamental test of strategy and vision is whether a proposed effort can gain the financial support required to make it sustainable. In the context of the space program, this translates into a question of political support and public funding. The answer for 50 years has been ‘No’ or ‘barely enough’ when it comes to space exploration and returning humans to the Moon and beyond as illustrated with a few specific numbers from the National Research Council’s report:
- Percentage of people ‘very’ interested in space exploration: 21%
- Percentage of people ‘well informed’ about space exploration: 5-6%
- Percentage of people ‘attentive’ to space exploration: 5%
- Percentage of Americans that believe we spend too little on space exploration: 22%
- Percentage of Americans that believe we spend too much on space exploration: 33%
- Rank of Space Exploration on a list of US national priorities: 16th (out of 18)
- Percentage of Americans that view NASA ‘very’ or ‘mostly’ favorably: 73% (1)
These numbers don’t necessarily rule out a modest increase in funding for space exploration, but nor do they suggest space exploration is something that Americans are pining for or willing to fund in any significant measure. Within our current means, we have maintained a continual presence in space aboard the International Space Station for 20+ years. Yet, people still aren’t engaged. The numbers have barely budged. The budget only modestly so.
If we follow the current strategy of focusing on space exploration with ‘inspiring moments’, we may get a few more of those ‘firsts’ under our belt: The first nation to return to the moon, perhaps even a small base over time, maybe even a future visit to Mars. But if the past is any guide, none of these events are likely to be sustained beyond a few historic televised moments, replayed endlessly, and footprints left behind in the dust of other worlds for the same reasons that the moon landings five decades ago did not lead to a sustained presence beyond low earth orbit or permanent bases on the moon.
Worse, while we may get a burst of public enthusiasm after each new milestone, the glory may be a little less fleeting each time, overshadowed by the reality of limited resources, a challenge that is likely to get worse not better based on the forecasted fiscal and demographic trends amplified by the economic aftermath of the global Covid pandemic. If this weren’t enough, Earthly priorities are getting more urgent. Our environment continues to deteriorate, the economy is stagnant or struggling with low growth rates, and the world has steadily become an ever more dangerous place than before, requiring more guns and less butter. And that was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing menace of Taiwan.
A program of space exploration addresses none of these problems. Our public strategy for space is flawed today because it misreads the significance of our past glories, fails to understand both the limits to and potential aspirations of public opinion and political support, and falls far short of any potential for scale and sustainability, much less a public return on investment. Space exploration is not designed to solve any of the major problems we face on Earth. It is doomed not to failure, but a kind of budgetary anemia that gets us nowhere fast.
The vision we are pursuing in space today represents a paradox: It is simultaneously too expensive to fund and too small to sell.
We need a vision that corresponds to what the public wants and is willing to fund. There are a few tantalizing hints that the American public might be open to a more ambitious alternative.
A Pew Research Center survey in 2010 found that 53% of the public envision ordinary people traveling in space in 50 years. A similar study by Pew in 2014, found 33% of the public expects humans to live in colonies on other worlds in 50 years. And more recently, another survey in 2019 found that 50% of Americans believed travel in space for tourism would be routine in 50 years.
These data points offer a hint that the public may be far more ambitious and optimistic in its view of the future than any policy roadmap that currently exists and that optimism has been steady over time for more than a decade.
Policymakers may scoff, but these numbers represent a mix that is part aspirational desire and part educated guess by the public. And while these numbers don’t represent majorities, what’s truly impressive is that they exist in such large numbers at all – even before any systematic effort to communicate a vision of an expansive effort in space. These polls hint at the possibility that the public wants more – much more – from our space program.
The space billionaires may be closer to the mark than our public officials and public vision. When Elon Musk talks about colonizing Mars, his message finds a ready audience. When Jeff Bezos speaks about a future where millions of people live and work in space, he is simply saying out loud what many Americans want to hear.
It is to these aspirations and these dreams that this essay speaks.
The gap we need to bridge is the difference between the current public vision of a handful of astronauts exploring the moon and Mars and the vision of millions of people living and working in space. There is as yet no serious plan, even an outline of one, in the public sphere for what it will take to get to mass scale in space or even a rationale for why we should try.
This book attempts to explain why we need scale, what the benefits are, and how to get there.
Our failure to seize the high frontier this past 50 years is not the result of the perfidy of politicians, the fickleness of voters, or changes in geopolitical fortunes. It comes down to the simple realities of engineering, economics, and a vision Americans will pay to support.
For the record, I truly like NASA. I fully support returning to the moon and going to Mars as explorers and I will continue to do so. I hope to enjoy these “inspiring moments” if and when we get them. However, I firmly believe that a program of human space flight focused on space exploration should be the icing on the cake. The problem is that for the last 50 years we have failed to bake the cake. This essay will attempt a new recipe for doing so.
For many, the private sector is the answer and government just needs to get out of the way. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin will open the door to a new frontier in space, breaking the stranglehold of governments and bureaucracies. I disagree. Without taking anything away from the innovations and energy these entrepreneurs and companies are bringing to the scene, I will argue (perhaps undiplomatically) that this point of view mistakes hype for reality and is deeply naive. I will argue that ‘advancing humanity’ into space is going to require a massive public commitment to create the market and build the infrastructure within which the private sector can then flourish.
The rhetoric about opening up the space frontier for the benefit of private enterprise is, at this point, more rhetoric than reality. We should not confuse Silicon Valley Libertarianism with a realistic plan to seize the high frontier. To be successful, the private sector is going to need government contracts at volume and scale. It’s going to require a partnership based on much larger public funding (trillions not millions). Yet the hard work of rallying the public to any such large-scale investment has not even begun and it must start with a vision of public benefits that can be realized as a result.
I do believe it is possible to get to scale in space. This may seem wildly naïve given the record that I have just articulated in the past few pages. The perennial underfunding of NASA is so bad, it has become a Hollywood cliché. In the film Interstellar, denial of the Apollo missions is so widespread that NASA becomes (literally) an underground organization. But it isn’t just Hollywood. Writing just before the last flight of the Space Shuttle, The Economist magazine, a paragon of rationale economic thought, opined that ‘humanity’s dreams of a future beyond the final frontier of geostationary orbit had faded.’ In their words, outer space was ‘history’ and the Space Age was ‘over.’
They were wrong then and even more so now.
With this essay, I will argue that there is potential to increase funding for our space program in a politically sustainable way. And I don’t mean a modest increase of a few percentage points. I believe an increase of several magnitudes of order is possible and I will lay out a case for gaining public support for doing so.
I will argue the paradox that it may be easier to increase NASA’s budget by 10x than by 2x. It is true, that the number of Americans truly focused on our space program is modest and support for increased funding is soft, but I believe we have been asking the wrong questions and pitching the wrong vision. I believe it possible that these numbers barely hint at the potential for support and I will put forth a plan in this essay to dramatically increase public engagement and to build the public coalition necessary to fund an American space program at scale.
We don’t need to wait for ecological disaster, external help from an ‘alien’ race, or to solve for gravity to go forward into space. We can do this now. We need no particular magic or help from another dimension. The tools are more mundane by comparison. It comes down to engineering, economics, and – most of all – political will and public support. While not easy, these are problems we can knock down and challenges we can overcome if we have the right vision.
A vision for a future in space that is much more expansive than space exploration must start by understanding the underlying reasons that have held us back for the last 50 years. It must identify what to change and what is changing that will lead us to that bolder future.
- NRC, Pathways to Exploration, section 3.1.1-2, page 108-110
- : ____, “The End of the Space Age, June 30, 2011, http://www.economist.com/node/18897425