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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Column: Why we need the US Government to lead space exploration

The excitement of the space race in the 1960s and 1970s led to astronomical advancements in technology that allowed humanity to send people to the moon for the first time. NASA led space exploration in the U.S. for almost 60 years, but with new, low government budgets, many wonder if the task would be better left to the private sector.

While private companies do have the potential to fund certain projects involving space travel, space exploration is simply too large a feat for any corporation to take on. The terms space travel and space exploration are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous.

While space travel can refer to any journey outside the earth’s atmosphere, space exploration is about pushing boundaries and expanding our knowledge of the universe.

Many private companies already have satellites and use them for everything from navigation to weather forecasting. The private sector has played a larger role in space travel in the past few years with companies planning missions to send supplies and satellites into space.

NASA has been working with a private space company, SpaceX, to send supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX was recently given five more cargo missions from NASA to deliver supplies to the ISS in the next few years.

Virgin Galactic is another major factor. It is trying to make a business out of space travel.

Virgin Galactic’s craft, SpaceShipTwo, is designed to one day take civilian tourists into space. These companies could leave the atmosphere and maybe even reach the moon, but should these corporations become the pioneers of the final frontier?

Private companies are driven by short-term goals with foreseeable profits. Space travel is a risky business that investors are hesitant to put their money into. Those that do are more inclined to support well-researched technologies and previously attempted missions, such as ferrying supplies and making short trips outside the atmosphere. While they may have the money, these businesses do not have the motivation to explore space beyond what mankind has already achieved.

Former space shuttle astronaut Charles D. Walker, who currently resides in Tucson, recently wrote a piece in the Arizona Daily Star defending government-run space exploration.

“Only a nation can marshal the long-term funding and pioneering vision needed to ‘boldly go where no one has gone before,’” Walker wrote. “In fact, nearly every great exploration in history has been government-funded or guaranteed, from Magellan’s trip around the globe to the Lewis and Clark expedition. NASA’s own history reads as an improbable list of ‘firsts.’”

NASA recently accepted applications for new astronauts and received the largest turnout ever, with over 18,300 applicants applying for just fourteen coveted positions. Some of these new astronauts may even be chosen for a mission to Mars in the early 2030s. These are the men and women who will explore space and go where no man has gone before.

It’s expected that it will take around two decades for NASA to launch a Mars mission. Getting to Mars would take eight to 10 months and the astronauts would have to stay on the foreign planet for about two years until the planets were aligned in such a way that the return trip would be possible.

SpaceX has claimed it will send colonists to Mars before NASA, but with such a large time frame, high margin for failure and few immediate profits, the chances of follow through are little to none.

“We should not be content to do what we’ve done since the 1960s, only a little cheaper—or to stake our most important space-exploration goal on the whims of the market,” Walker wrote.

Going to Mars is essential to our future as a species. There may come a day when Earth is no longer inhabitable. Pollution, nuclear holocaust or even a large asteroid could wipe out our home planet.

We like to consider ourselves much different from the dinosaurs, but if we don’t figure out interplanetary travel soon, our species may face a similar extinction.

Private companies cannot be expected to operate with long-term thought processes and will not spend money on risky exploration projects. Corporations may take some of the small steps for man, but we still need organizations like NASA to take the giants leaps for mankind.


Follow Apoorva Bhaskara on Twitter.


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