On April 9, the Biden administration unveiled a “skinny budget” for the 2022 fiscal year. One standout number was President Joe Biden’s budget request for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, asking Congress for $24.7 billion in appropriations to the agency, a $1.5 billion increase from 2021.
This budget reflects a shifting sentiment within the White House, and experts believe that it sends a message to the world that the United States recognizes the need to pursue innovation and space exploration. These new numbers also reflect increased international concern over a new space race — one that is growing more competitive and technologically advanced.
NASA recently completed its first major accomplishment under President Joe Biden with the successful landing of the mars rover Perseverance on February 18. But the United States is not the only country pursuing space exploration and innovation in the field. Countries such as China, India, and the United Arab Emirates have all invested heavily in their space programs within the past few years.
Beijing, in particular, has recently challenged Washington in this arena and the country’s recent technological accomplishments have garnered international attention. In 2019, the Chinese National Space Administration announced that it landed Chang’e-4, a probe, on the far side of the moon — feat no country has accomplished before.
The New York Times reports that the mission is likely going to be the first of many in the coming years.
“The landing of the probe, called Chang’e-4 after the moon goddess in Chinese mythology, is one in a coming series of missions that underscore the country’s ambitions to join — and even lead — the space race,” Beijing Bureau Chief Stephen Lee Myers and Research Assistant Zoe Mou wrote.
It is no secret that China and the United States continue to clash on economic issues, geopolitical tensions, human rights violations, and steep ideological differences. But, increasingly, space is becoming a new frontier of competition and conflict between the two countries.
In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense released a report to Congress warning of the capabilities of China’s space program.
“China has an operational ground-based Anti-Satellite (ASAT) missile intended to target low-Earth orbit satellites, and China probably intends to pursue additional ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit,” the report read. “China is employing more sophisticated satellite operations and is probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions.”
While Chinese officials have said that their space program would be used entirely for peaceful purposes, the rapid advancement of satellite technology for all countries, not just China, could pose political problems and moral challenges for all countries. According to the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, the world may be entering a new era of cyber warfare capabilities in space.
However, some look at the evolving situation with a positive outlook. Many experts believe that technological advancement from multiple countries also creates new opportunities for collaboration. Former NASA astronaut and USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor of astronautics practice Garrett Reisman spoke to Annenberg Media about the potential for international collaboration — and competition — in space. Reisman’s first mission, in 2008, was aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, which dropped him off at the International Space Station for a 95-day mission. His second mission was aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis two years later, where he returned to the ISS.
“Competition is good,” said Resiman, who was selected by NASA as a mission specialist astronaut in 1998. “There are always geopolitical reasons to try and do things in space, in fact, that was the primary underpinning for the Apollo program, to really demonstrate the technical superiority of the western world.”
To accomplish these ambitious goals and to demonstrate scientific advancement , NASA has spent billions of dollars of taxpayer money. In 2020, NASA spent $22.6 billion, which represents 0.48% of all U.S. government spending. Despite using a relatively small percentage of government spending, a CSPAN/IPSOS survey found that 27% of American’s believe NASA’s budget is too high.
But while national attitudes demonstrate a hesitation toward expanded U.S. efforts in space, interest among students who study aerospace engineering, physics and astronomy — including those at USC — remains high. And for many students, a revitalized focus on the field in 2021 and under a presidential administration that is more open to space exploration and innovation has led to new excitement and opportunities.
Max Binaei, a junior majoring in aerospace engineering, believes that breakthroughs in space exploration benefit life on Earth. Binaei gives the example of how NASA’s lunar imaging research from the 1960s have led to the development of the MRI, which has created massive breakthroughs in the fields of medicine and cancer research.
“Exploring science in space means to explore science at the highest level; the greatest minds are challenged to solve problems at the greatest extremes and toughest conditions,” Binaei said. “What this does is force these problem solvers to attack issues from angles that were never conceivable before, and has led to the biggest breakthroughs in science to date that are then applied to pressing problems on earth.”
Reisman agreed that space exploration provides meaningful benefits to all people, regardless of country of origin.
“There’s also scientific research going on which can help with new pharmaceuticals, new materials science applications,” said Reisman, who joined SpaceX as director of space operations after leaving NASA in 2011. “There are plenty of things that could benefit life on Earth.”
Reisman believes that the true justification for spending money on programs like NASA was the competitive advantage it would provide for the United States.
“It’s really about exploration and if you take the really big picture — if you take a long-term view — it’s about survival of the species,” Reisman said. “There’s nothing less important than that, and by that I mean we’re all on this one planet this is the only place that has humans.”
The current space race — though posing unique challenges due to technological innovation and cyber advancement — is not entirely new for many Americans.
On September 12, 1962, in front of a crowd of thousands at Rice University in Houston, Texas, then-President John F. Kennedy said a few words that have since become synonymous with one of the greatest accomplishments in American history. Kennedy said that, “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
This call to action became a challenge to engineers and scientists across the country, in a race to accomplish a goal that many thought was once impossible: landing on the moon. Although similar efforts were already underway throughout the world at that time, best exemplified by Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s mission to become the first human in space, this moment ushered in a new era of competition. Amid the Cold War, an era of more than four decades of geopolitical tension between the United States and Soviet Union, a space race ensued.
Now, nearly 60 years later, 12 people have since landed on the moon. But since NASA Astronaut Eugene Cernan stepped off onto the rocky surface in 1972, no additional astronauts have taken those steps. While record-breaking accomplishments such as the successful 1981 launch of the Space Shuttle Program and the creation of the International Space Station in the 2000s have taken place over the past 50 years, a lack of funding and congressional interest in space innovation and exploration have limited further accomplishments. In 1965, NASA’s funding occupied 4.3% of federal spending. Today, that number has decreased to 0.47%
However, this decade could mark the beginning of a new golden age of space exploration — and the field is more crowded with different players beyond the United States and Russia.
In 2020, the world witnessed the first flight to the ISS by a private company when the Spacex Dragon capsule and Falcon Rocket were launched from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, carrying American Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. In 2011, NASA began construction on a new type of rocket called the Space Launch System that will “be flexible and evolvable and will open new possibilities for payloads, including robotic scientific missions to places like the Moon, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.” And recently, NASA outlined a new program, Artemis, that intends to bring a new generation of astronauts to the moon by 2024.
With an increase in funding and the continued expertise of NASA experts and engineers, the United States may have the opportunity to set boots on both the Moon and Mars by the end of the decade. In response to launching the first ever helicopter on Mars as part of the Perseverance Rover mission. Joe Biden responded on Twitter with pride about the future of American space travel.
“NASA proved once again that with relentless determination and the power of America’s best minds, anything is possible,” he wrote.