One of the stellar American achievements of the last half-century has been privatized. It is the latest chapter in the neoliberal transformation that has changed a county with a market economy into a market society.
Few things in recent American history captured the imagination and interest of pubic the way the space race did. At forefront of that program was NASA. In the past NASA has been able to reinvent itself, from delivering satellites to delivering men to the moon, to launching a space station, to finally delivering a reusable spacecraft akin to an airplane. But now times have changed forever and NASA with it.
In 2019 the U.S. celebrated the 50th anniversary of the NASA putting a man on the moon. In a few days, a big part of the NASA era will be in the past. As The Atlantic explained, “NASA has outsourced perhaps its most consequential task: delivering human beings beyond the boundary that separates us from the rest of the universe.”
One reporter wrote it, “will be the true dawn of a new age of spaceflight: The commercial age.” “This” the article explained, “is spaceflight for profit.” Space Shuttle astronaut Craig Ferguson said, “NASA used to build and own the rocket. They managed the program to send Americans into lower earth orbit and to the international space station.”
Since the Reagan era, tax policies have encouraged the building of individual fortunes. As the economy has generated more billionaires they have assumed a larger role in America’s social and political life. This is what professor Michael Sandel refers to as America becoming a market society, rather than a country with a market economy. The astronomical fortunes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk have allowed them to create capital intensive programs that only governments could afford in the past.
Two things must be said at the outset: The private sector has always been heavily involved in NASA’s efforts to get astronauts into space. Second, the contractor, Elon Musk and Space X deserve none of the blame, and nearly all of the credit, for making this happen. Space X plans to deliver two astronauts to the International Space Station for less than the cost of the Space Shuttle, a Russian Soyuz rocket or a flight using Boeing’s rockets.
It should also be noted for Florida, it is important manned space launch take place and be conducted from here. Space X has helped even out some of the loses in Florida’s economy in recent years.
Legacy costs, structure and the public nature of NASA’s goals appear to be make it uncompetitive versus Space X. But the private sector will succeed only if it can deliver the astronauts safely.
NASA and the private sector also have plans to make it back to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars. NASA’s program to reach the moon is Artemis and includes a space station in the Moon’s orbit called Gateway.
Space X and Blue Origin, a project of Jeff Bezos, will be exploring their own ventures to land on the moon. Space X has the lofty ambition of putting a 100-passenger vehicle called “Starship” on the moon. Blue Origin is a program to take lunar rovers, other equipment and eventually astronauts to the moon.
Professor Wendy Whitman Cobb, a U.F. graduate who currently serves with the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, predicts an existential crisis for NASA if the private sector makes it to the moon first. She posits that the question may be asked, “If private companies can do it, what do we need NASA for?”
Kartik Krishnaiyer contributed to this article