A giant leap into the final frontier

How the privatization of the space industry is escorting us into the future

Photo Caption: South African entrepreneur Elon Musk is the co-founder of Paypal and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors.

Nigel Sumerlin

“3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . liftoff.”

The excitement was evident as this countdown blared over grainy footage of monstrous rockets and mountains of flame. Our parents watched with their parents as American rockets escaped gravity and ventured past the stratosphere. Their hearts swelled with patriotism as Neil Armstrong uttered the historic words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and their guts tightened like knots during the tragic Challenger disaster. They watched these landmarks on the edge of their seats, eyes glued to their TV sets, united as Americans hopeful for a future beyond the confines of our small planet.

Now we see a mention of an unmanned mission to Mars or a successful landing on an asteroid on our Facebook feed, click the like button and keep scrolling. The last man walked on the moon in 1972, and since then nothing has captured the attention of the American people in the same way as the Apollo missions once did.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, so did the competition. NASA’s funding has been steadily cut since the early 1970s, and in 2014 it was at it’s lowest since 1960, with only 0.5% of the federal budget being channeled towards the agency.

In the fall of 2012, I stood next to my classmates at Monterey Bay Academy watching the space shuttle Endeavour’s last flight as it was carried to its final resting place at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The space shuttle program had come to an end, and its death was vividly symbolized in my mind by the image of a space shuttle piggybacking on a private jet to a museum where it would be forever trapped in history.

Now NASA ironically pays the Russian government 70 million dollars a ticket to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). This means the United States government is paying the Russian government around $400 million a year to accomplish a task it once flaunted over its Cold War competitor.

But as NASA loses its place in the spotlight, there are competitors in the private sector with large ambitions. SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin are three companies paving the way for a “NewSpace” industry where private for-profit companies set their sights beyond our atmosphere.

SpaceX has made the largest mark, successfully delivering several loads of cargo to the ISS with its Falcon 9 rocket (named after the Millenium Falcon from the Star Wars series) and Dragon free-flying spacecraft. SpaceX has landed a contract with NASA to deliver astronauts to the ISS for less than $20 million a ticket, a plan that will significantly lower government spending and keep those dollars inside the United States economy.

Outside of the United States, exciting changes are happening as well. Mars One is a Dutch company that has promised to send a permanent human colony to Mars in 2024. The search for astronauts began in 2013, and earlier this month the company announced that the selection has been narrowed down to 100 candidates.

In order to accelerate the process and achieve its 2024 goal, Mars One has contracted private companies around the globe to build the technology for the mission. To fund the colonization of the red planet, Mars One will make the project a multimedia event and reality TV show where humans around the planet will be able to watch teams of four compete for a spot in the new colony and struggle to make our species’ first interplanetary colonization a success.

The final frontier has felt forgotten for decades, leaving us on a crowded planet feeling trapped and suffocated. Humans are a restless species and the need to conquer new challenges is deep-seated in who are. Space travel is moving away from the waxing and waning of politics and igniting hope for the future of our species, not only in Americans but human beings worldwide.

Perhaps the paraphrase of Dylan Thomas’s poem in the film Interstellar says it best: “We will not go gently into that good night, but together we will rage against the dying of the light.”

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.