The final space shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center earlier this month signified the end of an era, and for many Americans, that last flight carried the same bitter disappointment of a child giving up dreams of becoming an astronaut.
The pragmatic Obama administration scrapped most of the grandiose Constellation program and defunded NASA to shift emphasis to private space ventures. Sure, space travel is expensive, impractical even, but it is also undeniably cool, and NASA has inspired generations of Americans.
If Americans are going to continue to be a nation of people who look to the sky with optimism and hope, they must find a way to arouse a renewed interest in space, both private and public.
“To get more money for human spaceflight, there needs to be a compelling reason to do it,” said Roger Launius, space history curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, to space.com. “Either that reason doesn’t exist, or it hasn’t been articulated.”
A new space race could serve that purpose. The push to the moon was in no small part influenced by America’s Cold War rivalry with Russia. Yet, America is now entirely reliant on the unwavering Russian space program to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. In a way, Russia has finally won the space race.
China may be the best candidate for a new rival. In the past decade, China became the third country to put a human in space using its own rockets and Chinese “Taikonauts” began space walks.
While the U.S. space program faces stagnation, rapidly advancing China plans to have its own space station by 2020, according to Forbes.
China plans to land a probe on the moon within two years and to put humans on the moon as early as 2025, according to the Guardian.
Perhaps the thought of a Chinese flag planted in the lunar soil next to the American one will light a fire under U.S. investors.
Europe, India and Japan also have their eye on the sky and a potential multi-nation space race threatens to leave America in the moon dust. A private Japanese consortium wants to construct and land a two-legged humanoid robot to walk on the moon.
Chinese Taikonauts and Japanese androids may make U.S. space dominance a thing of the past.
For better or for worse, the private sector now controls America’s extraterrestrial future, and it is time to embrace that. After all, capitalism and a free market are a point of pride among Americans, and NASA was often criticized for the waste and inefficiency typical of government agencies.
In fact, private companies such as SpaceX – which plans to offer shuttle service to NASA at far less than Russia’s $63 million per seat ticket price – may give the U.S. the edge it needs. China’s burgeoning space program can’t compete with SpaceX’s prices either.
“China has the fastest growing economy in the world,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in an official statement. “But the American free enterprise system, which allows anyone with a better mouse-trap to compete, is what will ensure that the United States remains the world’s greatest superpower of innovation.”
Private companies bolstered by government grants are the winning combination America needs to stay competitive and keep the U.S. on the forefront of space exploration.
Michael Hardcastle is a senior majoring in creative writing.