Space Exploration and U.S. Competitiveness

Author: Steven J. Markovich, Contributing Editor
November 29, 2013

NASA/Courtesy Reuters

The launch of Sputnik and subsequent Russian firsts in space convinced many policymakers in the United States that the country was falling dangerously behind its Cold War rival in science and technology. Acknowledging the strategic significance of the "space race," consecutive U.S. administrations made seminal investments in education and scientific research in an effort to meet the Soviet challenge. These investments not only propelled the United States to preeminence in space exploration in the ensuing decades but also planted the seeds for future innovation and economic competitiveness, experts say. In 2013, a different set of challenges and priorities drive the debate over the U.S. space program, which many analysts believe is once again at a critical juncture.

Defining the Mission

The Soviet Union took the world by surprise in October 1957 with the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. In a matter of months, President Eisenhower and Congress moved forward with multiple measures designed to build U.S. scientific and engineering prowess, including the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a civilian space exploration agency.

Over the years, presidents have largely determined NASA's long-term missions. In May 1961, a few weeks after the Soviet Union put the first human in space (Yuri Gagarin), President Kennedy committed the United States to a lunar landing. He stressed the urgency and the value of this mission in a landmark speech at Rice University in September of that year. "We choose to go the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we're willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win."

After six successful lunar missions, NASA's manned program pulled back to Earth. First with the launch of Skylab, the first U.S. space station, in 1973, and then with the Space Shuttle program in 1981, NASA focused on sending astronauts into low earth orbit, while robotic missions such as Voyager and Viking continued to explore the Solar System. The Space Shuttle served NASA for thirty years (1981–2011) and helped build the International Space Station, an orbiting laboratory that has been continuously occupied by humans since 2000.

The George W. Bush administration pushed for a return to the moon and a trip to Mars, but President Obama favored an asteroid mission. The project has evolved into a plan to capture an asteroid twenty to thirty feet in diameter and redirect it into a lunar orbit for astronauts to visit early in the next decade. The Obama administration also set a goal of a manned mission to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, which would obviously require the commitment of subsequent presidents.

Launching STEM Careers and Innovations

The space race of the 1960s and 1970s captured the American public's imagination unlike any other human endeavor, and many space advocates believe such inspiration should be a primary objective of NASA today. A 2009 study in Nature, the international weekly journal of science, found that the Apollo program inspired half of scientists surveyed, while almost 90 percent believed that manned space exploration inspired younger generations to study science. Some evidence seems to support this. According to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of bachelor's degree graduates in science and engineering fields peaked in the late 1960's, around the time of the moon landing, but has declined slowly since.

Detailed national data were not released for the academic year ending in 1999.(Source: National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics)

Space exploration can also foster innovation in ways unlike other human undertakings, pushing the limits of technology and requiring the collaboration of some of the brightest people across multiple disciplines. As Jim Bell, president of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to space exploration advocacy and education, said in a CFR interview: "When you're embarking on an enterprise that is the hardest thing to do, it often attracts the best people who are intrigued by very difficult problems and want to have a sense in purpose in applying their knowledge to something big."

Space exploration can also foster innovation in ways unlike other human undertakings, pushing the limits of technology and requiring the collaboration of some of the brightest people across multiple disciplines.

NASA's transfer of technology to the private sector is well documented. The space agency catalogues some 1,800 spinoffs from technologies originally developed for space exploration. Some are obvious and direct such as communications satellites, while others are less intuitive. For instance, many medical advances have been made as a result of space technologies, from refinements in the artificial heart to improved mammograms and laser eye surgery.

NASA researchers have also developed new materials and industrial techniques, including thermoelectric coolers for microchips, high temperature lubricants, and a means of mass-producing carbon nanotubes, a material with significant engineering potential. Even household products such as memory foam mattresses, programmable ovens, vacuums, and ski apparel trace their origins to NASA.

Funding NASA

Space exploration is expensive, but it is a relatively minor line item in the U.S. budget. NASA's spending peaked at almost 4.5 percent of the federal budget in fiscal year 1966, declined to 1 percent by 1975, and has gradually fallen to about half a percent in recent years. (In comparison, baseline defense spending has hovered around 20 percent in recent years.)

But the public's perception of NASA's spending is very different. The average person estimated that NASA's share of the federal budget was 20 percent in 1997, and then 24 percent in 2007, according to polls. "Turning around those false perceptions of funding is perhaps the most serious challenge facing those who wish to gain greater public support for space exploration," wrote NASA's chief historian Roger Launius.

Federal fiscal years 1977 and after begin on October 1; prior fiscal years started on July 1. (Source: Office of Management and Budget)

The Obama administration's 2014 budget proposal for NASA is $17.7 billion, largely keeping with recent spending trends for space. Major expenditures include science missions ($5.0 billion), space operations such as the International Space Station ($3.9 billion), and new commercial and public exploration development ($3.9 billion).

After retiring the Space Shuttle in July 2011, NASA will not have the means to send astronauts into space on its own until at least 2021, when the Orion Capsule is expected to be ready for crewed missions. In 2010, former Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan warned the Obama administration that U.S. leadership in space could suffer if the country went for an extended period without its own launch vehicle for manned space flight. Current U.S. astronauts must ride Russia's Soyuz capsule to the ISS—$70 million per seat—until 2017 when private firms are expected to offer manned access to low earth orbit (LEO).

Commercializing Space

Historically, 85 to 90 percent of NASA's budget went to private sector contractors—largely to design and manufacture rockets and spacecraft—while NASA maintained close oversight and operated the equipment. But now NASA is beginning to privatize operations as well through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program initiated in 2006. Advocates believe private firms such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences—both of whom won contracts to ferry ISS cargo—can provide routine LEO access at a lower cost, eventually even for manned flight. Proponents of this shift say NASA could then focus more on missions that push scientific and exploration frontiers. Some go further in suggesting that NASA become more like DARPA or the National Science Foundation by setting objectives—such as capturing an asteroid—and then giving grants to private firms to pursue them. On the other hand, critics argue that development grants and limited competition will yield scant savings.

Other entrepreneurs see a commercial future in space beyond NASA contracts and satellite launches, although many ventures are still on the drawing board. Space Adventures offers customers the opportunity to orbit Earth and experience spectacular views and weightlessness, while Virgin Galactic plans to offer suborbital flights. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries were created to pursue asteroid mining, which supporters believe could supply future space colonies and provide a new abundance of precious metals and rare earth elements.

Eric C. Anderson, a cofounder of both Space Adventures and Planetary Resources, told CFR that the U.S. government could do more to assist the burgeoning industry, such as setting clear rules for space property rights. Ultimately, he sees a vast space economy: "NASA, space tourists, and researchers are the substantial markets that will create economies of scale. Ultimately, the American public will benefit as the costs come down until they are reachable by a larger percentage of the population, and we will truly integrate space into our economy."

International Competition and Cooperation

The United States remains the only nation to send humans beyond earth orbit, but experts say U.S. preeminence in space could be challenged in coming years. China and India in particular are investing more in space. China became the third nation to independently launch a human into orbit in 2003, and has grown its capabilities over the last decade. While technically separated in the 1990s, the People's Liberation Army is still seen as a central driver of the Chinese space program, whose ambitions include reaching the moon and building a space station by 2020. Meanwhile, India launched its first unmanned mission to Mars in late 2013.

Courtesy Reuters

However, space has also presented a theater for international collaboration since exploration of the cosmos began. In what would be his final speech before the UN in 1963, President Kennedy pondered such a global alliance. "Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries—indeed of all the world—cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending some day in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries."

Kennedy's vision eventually materialized with the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, where U.S. and Russian spacecraft docked for the first time. Today, the United States is the managing partner of the International Space Station, which has involved fourteen nations in perhaps the most expensive project in human history. The space agencies of Europe, Russia, and Japan were also important partners on robotic missions such as the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The ISS will likely be de-orbited in the 2020s, but many say deeper space missions will likely need to be international ventures.

Uncertainty Ahead

Space policy experts agree that NASA faces short and long term challenges, including new budget pressures, aging infrastructure, the rise of competing spacefaring nations, and the lack of a strong national vision for human spaceflight. A 2012 independent assessment conducted by the National Research Council questioned plans for an asteroid mission before a manned mission to Mars. "[The] lack of national and international consensus on the asteroid-first mission scenario undermines NASA's ability to establish a comprehensive, consistent strategic direction." The report also noted that a crewed mission to Mars "has never received sufficient funding to advance beyond the rhetoric stage."

Space policymakers must clarify NASA's purpose, missions, and methods by answering many questions. How should NASA balance the goals of driving scientific discovery, promoting U.S. prestige, enhancing national security, and developing innovations with commercial benefits? What role should the private sector play? How much should NASA be a vehicle for international cooperation and diplomacy? How should U.S. space exploration inspire the next generation of STEM students?

Despite these questions, most experts advocate sustaining U.S. leadership in space. "I'm convinced that in this century the nations that lead in the world are going to be those that create new knowledge. And one of the places where you have a huge opportunity to create new knowledge will be exploration of the universe, exploration of the solar system, and the building of technology that allows you to do that," said former congressman and aerospace expert Robert Walker at a CFR meeting on space policy in 2013.

Additional Resources

Dangerous incidents in outer space pose an increasing threat to U.S. assets and risk escalating into militarized crises, explains this Contingency Planning Memo.

Research and development is the backbone of a globally competitive, knowledge-driven economy, explains this backgrounder.

Watch full episodes of the History Channel's "The Universe" series, an educational program exploring the mysteries of the cosmos.

More on this topic from CFR