The launch of SpaceX, an American commercial rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station, has been hailed as a big step in exploring space through private enterprise. Many people hope that private enterprise will help America retain a strong presence in space at a time of strained budgets for NASA, the nation’s primary government space agency. NASA has scrapped the shuttle program, and until the agency has a replacement space vehicle in several years, American astronauts will have to hitch a ride to the International Space Station with the Russians. That development would have been unthinkable a generation ago, and we see it as a sad state of affairs for a country that’s supposed to be a global superpower.
We believe that private enterprise has a big role to play in exploring space. But some kinds of space-based scientific research, such as ambitious projects aimed at plumbing the mysteries of theoretical physics, aren’t going to be very attractive for commercial investors. That research is enormously expensive, and much of the knowledge gained from these projects isn’t easily monetized. This kind of science will continue to require government support to advance. On that front, too, America seems to be falling behind.
The New York Times recently reported “a worrying trend in which American scientists, facing budget deficits and political gridlock, have had to pull back from or delay promising projects while teams based in Europe” move ahead with groundbreaking space-based research.
As we’ve said before, great powers throughout history have been at the forefront of exploration. If America forfeits its leadership in exploration, it places its prominence on the world stage at risk.