The Modern Day Space Race

Amy Gyang, Writer

      Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin On July 20, 1969, 350 million people around the world watched Neil Armstrong say his most famous words, “This is a small step for a man, a giant leap for humanity.” NASA had achieved what many thought was impossible: sending a man to the Moon, starting a rage in space travel from newspapers to radios to children’s toys—until it wasn’t. As the public interest in space exploration declined, so did the willingness to spend taxpayer money to fund these costly missions. 

    NASA’s government funding peaked during the Apollo programs of the 1960s, but has since reduced dramatically. In 2011, the government discontinued funding for NASA’s longest-running space shuttle program, which was responsible for the construction of the International Space Station (ISS) and satellite facilities, but its failed flights and exorbitant costs made it clear that funding had to be cut.

    In the recent decade, private companies and investors, largely pushed by competition, funded millions into their own space programs with hopes to develop clean energy technologies, establish colonies and develop space infrastructure. The modern day space race had begun.

    Kelvin Manning, who currently serves as Associate Director of  Kennedy’s Space Center and is the father of sophomore, Rachel Manning, has worked at NASA for more than two decades.

    “When you have two people with similar net worths and ventures for space travel, it’s not crazy that they have developed a competition,” Manning said.

    Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, both leading the race to space, have formed a competitive rivalry. 

    “The reason we go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth,” Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the rocket company Blue Origin said in a 2019 interview. “If we are going to continue to grow this civilization, we need the Moon.” 

New Shepard, Bezos’s reusable suborbital rocket system, is set to travel to the Moon by 2024. 

    “What I really hope is that we stick with going back to the moon, this time to stay, because that is actually the fastest way to get to Mars. It’s an illusion that you can skip a step. Skipping steps slows you down, it’s seductive but wrong,” said Bezos. The Amazon founder foresees his colonization of the Moon, as an opportunity to construct colonies with various themes and designs that will be able to house trillions of people while remaining sustainable    

    After striking a deal with NASA, in 2008, Musk hit a milestone in the billionaire space race: creating a commercial spacecraft system trusted to send humans to Mars. Musk, known for his company of electric vehicles Tesla, has raised concerns over gas emissions on Earth. Musk’s company, SpaceX, became the first to launch a privately owned spacecraft and to create fully reusable rockets. According to SpaceX’s website, reusable rockets have reduced emissions by 64% and cut costs by 65%, compared to NASA’s single use rockets.  

    “You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about,” said Musk, “And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

    SpaceX’s reusable rocket, Starship, is expected to fly to Mars by 2024, with the goal of creating a human colony. 

    Due to the temperature difference between Mars and Earth, and because the atmosphere of Mars provides limited protection from radiation, the colony will have to begin in domes that protect inhabitants from these conditions. On a “Third Row Tesla” podcast, Musk described the colony being under a direct democracy where people will make their own choices. In an aim to make Mars more habitable, Musk plans to use terraforming, transforming plants from a hostile ecosystem to terrestrial life, to support human life.

    While Musk’s exploration to space emerged from curiosity, Bezos’ drive for space exploration is rooted by concerns that have arisen on Earth, such as environmental and resource restrictions.

    “They take a long time to solve. You can’t wait until the long range problems are urgent to work on them,” Bezos said.

    For decades, public institutions dominated space exploration, but with the arrival of private companies, space exploration has accelerated, offering numerous advances.