Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The United States is facing sharp internal division at a time of mass unemployment, civil rights protests, and a prolonged war oversees. But despite this hyperpolarization, America finds itself united – even if briefly – in cheering on the U.S.’s progress in space travel within the competitive space race. You, of course, aren’t Doc Brown from the movie Back to the Future, and you don’t have a time machine. It’s still 2020, but the 1960s decade seems to be repeating itself.
After Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their historic walk on the Moon, space exploration in the U.S. started to take a backseat to other government programs and priorities. At the same time, competing nations like China, Russia, and India all bolstered their capabilities and set ambitious goals, such as beating America to Mars. But with the recent SpaceX Dragon Crew launch, America has now signaled that it’s ready to compete again, and national enthusiasm around the space race is growing back to where it once was.
What’s unique this time around is the competition isn’t only between competing countries; it’s also between competing companies.
While NASA spent the decade fighting a decreasing budget and ended the shuttle program in 2011, private sector companies are now emerging to lead the way for the next great journeys into space. Billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have raised significant investments for their respective private companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, joining a growing marketplace of planetary pioneers.
Over the past decade, the trial and error of these companies has brought many failed launches and lost payloads. While the causes should be carefully studied and learned from, they should be looked at less as failures and more as growing pains that helped get the industry to the promising place it is today. The fact is, it’s still dangerous to get up to low Earth orbit. The power required demands a controlled explosion, otherwise known as a rocket.
Even now, contractors will still make mistakes, and they all won’t be suitable for every NASA job. SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploding in Texas the day before the company’s historic Saturday launch highlights that fact. But there’s no reason to fear when a failure like this one occurs, because in the 21st century, NASA finally has options. It can compete one company against another for the most reliable technology and the best deal for taxpayers.
Unlike the 1960s, if the agency determines that one contractor is not well-suited for a particular mission, it
Space holds the prospect of unlimited resources that can provide the nation with infinite opportunities. It’s the greatest of the great frontiers and offers humanity untold riches and progress. Its exploration will be the great leap forward of the 21st century. While the first private launch has kickstarted the process, the great milestones still lie years in the future. This adventure is only beginning, and it will be incredible to witness. Watching the SpaceX launch took me back to the first shuttle flight, and the mission to Hubble of which I was a small part. The sense of wonder, the sense of awe and adventure, was back — big time.
At the moment, America may have more significant concerns on its plate than capitalism in space exploration. There is mass unemployment and a deadly virus. The nation is tearing itself apart once more over the issues of race, urban policy, and polarization, plus the emerging threat of domestic terrorism. But the work of NASA and these commercial companies has helped to rally our nation in this time of crisis and great division, and for that, the entire country should be grateful. I cannot wait for the next launch, the next milestone, the next horizon.
We’re back in space!
Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries. He’s a writer, producer, veteran, author, and Texan. His short film, Hubble Reborn, continues its long run in museums worldwide.