In March 2017, the future of space exploration is a matter of imagination and conjecture. With a new presidential administration that has a habit of making lofty goals, average citizens and experts alike are at a loss to predict what the future of the space program might look like.
“It’s an open question at the moment,” said Casey Dreier, Director of Space Policy at the Planetary Society.
These words were echoed in the sentiment of 12-year-old Mary Jack Gordon from Montgomery, Alabama, who said “It’s just cool, being able to fly. I think it’s so cool that we can fly and explore space.”
Space travel has always captivated the imagination. Nowhere is this phenomenon more on display than at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, where people may go to be educated about the sheer scope of space, as well as to contemplate the depth of possibility for humanity to explore it.
This is where Kathy, Monty and Mary Jack Gordon chose to spend a windy morning on their spring trip to the Washington D.C. The Gordon family were brought in by a shared interest in the possibilities of air and space travel.
The Gordon Family at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
“My favorite thing is probably the simulator,” Monty Gordon said when asked about his favorite thing in the museum, “I have a lot of history with aviation.”
If the campaign promises of Donald Trump are to be believed, then a renewed pursuit of deep space exploration should be in the books for the United States. In October 2016, the Trump Campaign released two op-eds about space policy. These articles presented militarization of space technology and a renewed focus on deep space exploration as priorities of the Trump administration.
Monty and Kathy Gordon both voted Republican, though Kathy says she’s more on the line when it comes to party politics. When asked how they would feel about an expanded space program, they both immediately said “I think it’d be great.”
Monty spoke more, “I think it’d be great to put it through the private sector like they’re trying to do right now. The private sector spends better than the government sector.”
This was in reference to the recent announcement that SpaceX, a private company, made on their website that they intend to fly two private citizens on a journey around the moon next year. However, according to Dreier, the private and public sectors are not so easily divided.
“SpaceX own their own intellectual property, but one half of their revenue comes from NASA,” Dreier said, “NASA is always going to be a major player. What you’re going to see is a continued mutual dependency between these companies and NASA.”
An important distinction in how funds are allocated toward space programs is the difference between civil space and defense space. Civil space refers to the exploration and discovery of space, whereas defense space deals more with the militarization of space technology.
According to Dreier, at the moment $24 billion a year goes into defense space, which is $5 billion more than NASA gets. Military programs are all unmanned, mostly dealing with satellites and robots. Although the op-eds did advocate for an increase in defense space funding, the kind of exploration that was also promised would not benefit from this.
In fact, in President Trump’s first address to Congress, he promised to increase defense
spending and cut funding to domestic agencies. Doing so would certainly benefit defense space, but negate the ability of NASA to act on the administration’s promise of exploration. The President may not have realized this however, as during his speech he stated that “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream.”
If NASA is able to get funding and can work in harmony with companies such as SpaceX, one possible outcome is the outright colonization of space. This could look different based on where it was happening.
“A moon colony wouldn’t just be people living on the moon. They would be looking for ice there so that they could use electrolysis and create fuel,” Dreier said, “It would be more like an oil rig. Mars would be different, SpaceX and others want to establish a colony there in the traditional sense, like a permanent settlement.”