The 1957 launch of Sputnik and subsequent Russian firsts in space convinced many U.S. policymakers that the country had fallen dangerously behind its Cold War rival. Consecutive U.S. administrations invested in education and scientific research to meet the Soviet challenge. These investments propelled the United States to victory in the so-called space race and planted the seeds for future innovation and economic competitiveness, experts say. Yet, since the 1990s, NASA’s share of federal spending has waned. The U.S. private sector has ramped up investment in space, but accidents and other obstacles cast some doubt on the pace of developing commercial space flight.
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 Dwight D. Eisenhower and Congress initiated measures to build U.S. scientific and engineering prowess, including the creation of NASA, a civilian space exploration agency.
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 John F. Kennedy committed the United States to a lunar landing. He stressed the urgency and value of this mission in a landmark speech at Rice University: “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, while robotic missions such as Voyager and Viking continued to explore the solar system. NASA focused on sending astronauts into low Earth orbit (LEO) with the 1973 launch of Skylab, the first U.S. space station, and the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle served NASA for thirty years (1981–2011) and helped build the International Space Station (ISS), an orbiting laboratory that has been continuously occupied by humans since 2000.
More recently, the George W. Bush administration pushed for a return to the moon and a trip to Mars, but President Barack Obama favored an asteroid mission. The Obama administration also set a goal of a manned mission to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, which would require the commitment of subsequent presidents.
President Donald J. Trump’s administration has voiced frustration with delays in the development of Orion, a capsule that could one day take astronauts to Mars, and has urged a manned return to the moon. It has also proposed trimming NASA’s budget. At the same time, Trump has directed the Department of Defense to create a branch of the military under the aegis of the Air Force that would focus entirely on threats from space, an indication of renewed interest in the field. As of June 2019, Congress was debating the organizational structure of the new space force.
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 1966, declined to 1 percent by 1975, and has gradually fallen to about half a percent in recent years. (In comparison, defense spending has hovered around 20 percent of the budget in recent years.) The Trump administration proposed just over $20 billion [PDF] for NASA in 2020, less than the $21.5 billion Congress appropriated for 2019.
Due to the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011, NASA no longer has the means to send astronauts into space by itself. U.S. astronauts will have to ride Russia’s Soyuz capsule to the ISS—at a cost of up to $82 million per seat—until private firms can offer LEO access, which is expected no earlier than 2023. In 2010, former Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan warned that U.S. leadership in space could suffer during this gap. Such criticisms, as well as Trump’s stated desire to land astronauts on the moon while he is still in office, spurred the president to announce in May 2019 that he will add $1.6 billion to his 2020 budget request for NASA.
Historically, 85 to 90 percent of NASA’s budget went to private contractors—largely to design and manufacture rockets and spacecraft—while NASA maintained close oversight and operated the equipment. But now NASA often privatizes operations as well. Advocates believe private firms such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, both of which won contracts to ferry ISS cargo, can provide routine LEO access at a lower cost, perhaps eventually even for manned flight. They say NASA could then focus more on missions that push scientific and exploration frontiers. Some go further to suggest that NASA become more like the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or the National Science Foundation by setting objectives, such as capturing an asteroid, and then giving grants to private firms. But critics argue that development grants and limited competition will yield scant savings. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson believes that while private enterprises can handle routine space flight, they are unable to bear the large and unknown risks of advancing the space frontier.
Some entrepreneurs see a commercial future in space beyond NASA contracts and satellite launches. U.S.-based Space Adventures offers customers the opportunity to orbit Earth and experience the views and weightlessness of space travel. Other firms have pursued asteroid mining, which supporters believe could supply a new abundance of precious metals and rare earth elements. Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, has conducted test flights and unveiled its own moon lander. Bezos has said he plans to “build a road to space” so that humans will one day be able to sustain colonies beyond Earth. Fellow billionaire Richard Branson founded the spaceflight firm Virgin Galactic, hoping to become the industry leader in a future space tourism sector.
Launching STEM Careers and Innovations
The space race of the 1960s and 1970s captured the American public’s imagination like few other human endeavors. A 2009 study in the journal Nature found that the Apollo program had inspired half of scientists surveyed, and almost 90 percent believed that manned space exploration inspired younger generations to study science. Some evidence supports this. According to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of graduates holding bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering fields peaked in the late 1960s, around the time of the moon landing, but then declined slowly for several decades before recent administrations began to reemphasize [PDF] the importance of funding science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.
Space exploration can also foster innovation, 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, told CFR, “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.”
Since 1976, technologies originally developed for space exploration have led to more than two thousand spinoffs when they were transferred to the private sector. Some are obvious, such as communications satellites, but other transfers are less well known. Many medical advances are derived from space technologies, such as refinements in artificial hearts, improved mammograms, and laser eye surgery. Space exploration drove the development of new materials and industrial techniques, including: thermoelectric coolers for microchips; high-temperature lubricants; and a means for mass-producing carbon nanotubes, a material with significant engineering potential. Household products such as memory-foam mattresses, Bluetooth headphones, programmable ovens, vacuums, and ski apparel all trace their origins to NASA.
International Competition and Cooperation
Only the United States has sent people beyond low Earth orbit, but experts say U.S. preeminence in space could be challenged. China became the third nation to independently launch a human into orbit in 2003 and its capabilities have since grown. The People’s Liberation Army is seen as a driver of the Chinese space program, whose ambitions include sending people to the moon and building a space station. Meanwhile, India launched its first unmanned mission to Mars in late 2013, and its probe entered Mars’s orbit in September 2014. The Indian Space Research Organisation has since reached an agreement with NASA on subsequent explorations of Mars.
Another international mission, the landing of a European Space Agency probe on a comet, attracted widespread interest in November 2014. Though the probe was unable to anchor properly due to a landing mishap, it was still able to send a large amount of valuable data to scientists. SpaceIL, an Israeli organization, launched a moon lander in early 2019 that ultimately crashed into the moon. Nevertheless, the attempt marked the first privately funded moon landing and made Israel the fourth country to attempt a soft moon landing. India became the fifth such country in September 2019, but it too failed when its lander appeared to crash into the moon.
Space can also inspire international cooperation. In what would be his final speech before the United Nations, in 1963, President Kennedy asked, “Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure?”
Kennedy’s vision eventually materialized with the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in which U.S. and Russian spacecraft docked for the first time. Today, the United States is the ISS’s managing partner, leading fourteen nations in perhaps humanity’s most expensive project. 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 deorbit in the 2020s, but many say deeper space missions will need to be international ventures.
The Space Force and Uncertainty Ahead
Space policy experts agree that NASA faces considerable challenges, including new budget pressures, aging infrastructure, the rise of competing spacefaring nations, and the lack of a strong national vision for human spaceflight. An independent assessment by the National Research Council in 2012 noted that a crewed mission to Mars “has never received sufficient funding to advance beyond the rhetoric stage.” President Trump has maintained that he is committed to the project.
The Trump administration’s push to create a space force within the military could be a sign that an era of cooperation in space is ending. In response to Trump’s order, Daryl G. Kimball of the Arms Control Association said, “At worst, it is the first step in an accelerated competition between the U.S., China and Russia in the space realm that is going to be more difficult to avert without direct talks about responsible rules of the road.” CFR’s Stewart M. Patrick agrees that “the stage could be set for a Cold War–style space race that overwhelms any multilateral cooperation.”
At the same time, policymakers face a growing number of issues around NASA’s present-day purpose and methods. These include how the agency should balance various goals, such as driving scientific discovery, enhancing national security, and developing innovations with commercial benefits; how large a role the private sector should play; and to what extent NASA can be a vehicle for international cooperation and diplomacy.
Despite these questions, many experts have advocated 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.