The Diminishing Role of NASA

The proposed federal budget for 2017 gives NASA a depleted $19 billion budget, with large cuts to deep space exploration. As the role of the administration continues to diminish, so does American leadership in global space exploration and innovation. Even with the funding that is provided, NASA’s role has been altered in recent years. Rather than focusing on sending humans to Mars or robots to Jovian moons, NASA has concentrated on using satellites to monitor Earth conditions.

Large budget cuts force space exploration missions to be delayed, limiting our ability to extend the reach of humankind outwards into the Solar System and beyond. The planned mission to Europa, which will search for life on one of Jupiter’s intriguing moons, is now put off until the late 2020s. Likewise, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion deep space crew capsule have suffered big funding cuts. The delays to development of these two systems will impede progress toward sending humans to Mars.

The Growth of Private Space Companies

As NASA’s role in space exploration is restrained, multiple private firms have grown to fill the void. SpaceX, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, has become arguably the most prominent player in the sector. The company has overarching goals to develop new space exploration technologies, as well as to reduce cost of space travel. The ultimate goal of SpaceX is to colonize Mars. With the end of NASA’s space shuttle program, SpaceX has also taken over resupplying cargo to the International Space Station. As a part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, NASA awarded SpaceX funding for its role.

At this point, the company’s claim to fame comes in the form of rockets. The Falcon 9 flew successfully into orbit in 2010. The larger capacity ‘Falcon Heavy’ is scheduled to make its first launch this year. But more than the launch of the rockets, the publicity has been driven by landing them. Within the expensive industry of spaceflight, any methods to reduce cost and increase efficiency are warmly welcomed. By landing the rockets, SpaceX can reuse them, rather than building replacements from scratch.

Successful Rocket Landings

In December of 2015, the Falcon 9 landed for the first time at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. After landing, a static fire test was conducted on the rocket, with a good overall outcome. After demonstrating proof-of-concept, SpaceX furthered the innovation by evaluating what could be done to make the rocket launches more efficient. After the rocket is detached from the payload, some fuel must be used to redirect the rocket to the launch pad. By using an autonomous drone ship, the rocket will only have to use energy to slow the vertical descent, rather than side to side motion. This increases fuel efficiency, decreasing cost.  

Landing the rocket on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean is no easy task. GPS errors, combined with the general swell of the ocean, mean that there is a high chance that the  70 meter tall rocket will experience ‘Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly.’ On April 8th, on the fifth try, the Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed on a barge, providing an option for launches with limited fuel capacity. Ultimately, 50% of the launches are expected to land at sea.

Future of Spaceflight

Ultimately, the goal of the SpaceX rocket launches is to refly boosters within weeks of touchdown, launching them multiple times in their lifetimes. But SpaceX isn’t the only company exploring the potential of reusable rockets. Blue Origin, developed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has landed the New Shepard booster three times already. Within less than two decades these private companies have been built from the ground up, delivering remarkable space exploration innovations. Even if the role of NASA continues to diminish, we can count on SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the countless other companies to propel humankind beyond Earth.