In seven months, UCSD will have its very own Triton alumna in space as Kate Rubins voyages with NASA to the International Space Station. She will join the growing ranks of human spacefarers, a pioneering subset of the world’s population that expands with each passing year. While NASA remains a formidable and constant presence when it comes to sending people to space, the 21st century has set the stage for a new Space Race — this time not between posturing superpowers, but rather between entities of the public and private sectors.
Consider NASA’s goal of having humans on an asteroid by 2025 and on Mars by the 2030s. Though NASA’s status as a prevailing public space agency remains uncontested, this public agency is no longer the absolute gatekeeper of outer space. Elon Musk, a billionaire engineer and real-life Tony Stark, has set goals to match NASA’s. He founded rival company SpaceX based on the notion that space agencies can thrive in the private sector.
SpaceX plans to put people on Mars in the 2020s and take advantage of space’s vast resources for profit, well ahead of NASA’s schedule. Another company, Mars One, also set lofty goals. It already started the process of selecting astronauts not only to visit Mars in 2026, but to experience the rest of their lives on the red planet, funded with an ongoing, international reality TV event. The clashing dates set for NASA versus SpaceX or Mars One reveal a healthy tension, a technological wager over who will gain the greater foothold off of Earth and in the universe. This wager carries implications beyond the specific organizations in question, speaking volumes about the state of private versus public blocs in society.
This juxtaposition parallels the original Space Race of the mid 20th century between the USSR and the USA. It happened as much for the sake of symbolically promoting capitalism against communism as for practical benefits. Though certainly not another Cold War, the new Space Race likewise represents a proving ground of this century’s ideologies.
Many consider public space agencies an outdated relic of the last century, undermining the free market’s natural evolution into space. Others hope to preserve outer space from the pitfalls of capitalism, keeping it as the common heritage of our species rather than just more worlds for monetary exploitation. One philosophy might predominate in the coming decades, and SpaceX’s success could make as fine a case for the former as NASA’s could for the latter.
Regardless, this competition drives us to progress. The first Space Race drove NASA’s funding to record highs, successfully earning 4.41 percent of the federal budget in 1966, compared to last year’s .5 percent.
This funding not only helped us reach the moon, but gave us many practical inventions originally developed for space, from solar cells and water purifiers, to artificial limbs and baby food.
A new Space Race could reinvigorate scientific funding, except this time, all major players benefit the same economy.
The younger private companies use NASA, a time-tested veteran of the first Space Race, to set their bold standards, while NASA can eventually reap the scientific advancements made by these capitalist firms whether or not they find success in the global market. This upcoming Space Race can avoid the zero-sum shortcomings of the original. These new competitors can cooperate to some extent and benefit from one another’s advancements.
The categories of public and private do overlap in many noteworthy ways, like NASA funding private ventures or doing business with them. Nonetheless, the dichotomy remains in an ideological realm where competition has the potential to spark exponential progress that the world has not seen in 50 years. The call-to-action here urges all to recognize that both paths lead forward and to support scientific and technological progress in all forms — to fight to increase funding for NASA, but also to fan the ambitions of private enterprises like SpaceX and Mars One.
The move to explore outer space can unlock untold resources for humanity, both physical and intellectual. The answers to age-old questions about the nature of life and our one and only Spaceship Earth may very well lie in researching other celestial bodies.
Economically speaking, just a small section of the asteroid belt could contain hundreds of trillions of dollars of useful industrial materials, such as precious metals that could be potentially mined with no environmental consequences on Earth.
The reasons for keeping space exploration relevant are limitless. In order to face the problems of the 21st century, humans need to keep driving one another forward and challenging each other to test the limits of our ideologies, while keeping in mind that our ultimate destination remains the same. In the race to explore the universe, regardless of the contestants, humanity wins in the end.