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Space Exploration in the US: Then, Now, and What Might Be

July 29, 2019
It was a sunny day in Houston when President John F. Kennedy stood before a crowd of 40,000 at Rice University. On September 12, 1962–over a year after he stood in front of Congress and proposed that America ought to put a man on the Moon–President Kennedy declared that America chooses to pursue its loftiest goals precisely due to their difficulty. That day, the President of the United States also highlighted the importance of American leadership in space: for making this new frontier “a sea of peace” that allows the exploration and progress of all people.[1]

Five years later, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, forming the basis of space law. At the core, the world’s second “nonarmament” treaty mandated that the nations party to the treaty must carry out its explorations of space “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries…exclusively for peaceful purposes” and prohibited the installation of any weapons into space or onto any celestial body.[2]

Image: Earthrise as seen from the Moon. Source: Wikimedia CommonsImage: Earthrise as seen from the Moon. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the time since, the world has watched as its nations have landed on the Moon, cooperated to develop and peacefully share the International Space Station (ISS), and amassed knowledge of what exists beyond the Earth. But since the 1998 Agreement that led to the civil, international development of the ISS, little policy regarding space has been established. The last major international legal framework to be enacted was in 2009, when the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) developed safety standards for applications of nuclear power in space.[3]

Amidst a diverse climate of technological innovation, fears of climate volatility, and yearnings for American dominance across the American political spectrum, space exploration is a hotter topic now than it has been since the end of the Space Race. During his time in office, President Trump has illustrated his own vision for American progress in space. In March 2019, the Trump administration called on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to land humans again on the Moon by 2024 – a feat that neither been accomplished nor attempted since 1972 – moving up NASA’s plans by four years.[4] NASA’s current lunar program, Artemis, aims to succeed its 2024 landing by developing a sustainable human base on the Earth’s closest celestial neighbor by 2028.

President Trump’s calls for revisiting the Moon came after the declaration of even loftier ambitions. In 2017, he called on NASA to land an American astronaut on Mars by 2033. Then, in March of 2018, in front of the National Space Council (NSC), President Trump announced his plans to develop by 2020 a military Space Force to ensure not only leadership but “American dominance in space.”[5] Though specifics are scant, these plans come despite the American agreement not to arm itself outside of Earth’s atmosphere, according to Outer Space Treaty. On July 13, plans to militarize space went international when President Emmanuel Macron of France announced the creation of its own Air and Space Force.[6]

American aspirations to lead in space exploration have rarely been scarce, though efforts to do so require massive funding. Met with initial opposition, President Kennedy’s aforementioned 1961 speech before Congress was given to incite the American public and, specifically, Congress to support and fund American lunar efforts. Soon, due to the Apollo program, U.S. government space spending surged, as total spending by the federal government doubled that of the private sector in 1966.[7] According to a study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, NASA’s budget peaked in that same year at over .70% of America’s GDP.[8] This massive spending paved way for an economic model of U.S. space exploration with the federal government at its center, contracting American companies, such as IBM and General Electric, to develop aeronautic technologies both with NASA and on its behalf.

This model holds true today: NASA works with Boeing to assemble the core stage needed to launch the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s most advanced launch vehicle to date that plans to launch is the Orion spacecraft to the Moon in 2024.[9] However, total private sector spending today is three times as much as that of the U.S. government, while today’s NASA budget lives at just over .10% of GDP.[10][11] With a 2019 budget of just $21.5 billion, NASA relies greatly on its private partners to develop its equipment; in fact, Vice President Pence encouraged NASA in March 2019 to be open to enabling the fully private development of aeronautical vehicles if private firms can deliver these rockets and equipment “faster at a lower cost to the taxpayer.”[12] Firms like Elon Musk’s SpaceX are already contracted by NASA, which pays SpaceX to use its rockets to launch cargo and satellites into the new frontier. Meanwhile, SpaceX and other like companies, such as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, are already working on fully privatized space exploration. Musk proposed plans in 2016 to develop a $10 billion rocket that would send passengers to Mars as early as 2024, while Bezos envisions a universe in which his Blue Origin will help build colonies in space, housing trillions of humans.[13][14]

Image: Planet Mars. Source: Wikimedia.Image: Planet Mars. Source: Wikimedia.

As future space developments require astronomical funds, NASA faces the major obstacle in amassing the required political and financial capital to bankroll its future endeavors. NASA sees its rules set by the nation’s executive while receives funding from taxpayer dollars as dulled out by Congress. Meanwhile, private firms face minimal oversight. The costs to explore what lies beyond our atmosphere might be plethoric, but the laws governing that very exploration are scarce, both at the national and international level. 109 nations have now ratified the Outer Space Treaty, but COPUOS, established in 1959, has done little to protect humanity and whatever lies beyond.

In turn, the future of NASA and space exploration face many uncertainties. Will it be NASA or private companies – which can amass funds and outpace bureaucracy in both spending and workflow – to lead the way in space technological development? Will a sovereign state be the first to establish colonies on other planets, or will that title be handed to a private entity? Will nations compete to explore celestial bodies independently, or will humans cooperate and collaborate to synergistically chart new ground? Time will tell, but as the US Congress and COPUOS sit idly, choosing to write few rules to regulate space exploration, the horizon remains hazy.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1] https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

  [2] https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/isn/5181.htm

  [3] http://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/timeline/index.html

  [4] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/03/trump-nasa-moon-2024/585880/

  [5] https://www.npr.org/2019/02/19/695930668/trump-pushes-ahead-with-space-force-despite-hurdles

  [6] https://www.politico.eu/article/macron-to-create-french-military-space-force/

  [7] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-moonshot-mind-set-once-came-from-the-government-no-longer-11563152820

  [8] https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdf/10.1257/jep.32.2.173, p. 173-174

  [9] https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/sls/new-milestone-reached-on-complex-large-rocket.html

  [10] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-moonshot-mind-set-once-came-from-the-government-no-longer-11563152820

  [11] https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdf/10.1257/jep.32.2.173, p. 173-174

  [12] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/26/science/nasa-moon-pence.html?searchResultPosition=46

  [13] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/science/elon-musk-spacex-mars-exploration.html?searchResultPosition=2

  [14] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/science/jeff-bezos-moon.html?searchResultPosition=28


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