On Feb. 6, SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer founded and run by Elon Musk, made history by launching its Falcon Heavy rocket.

The moment’s importance should not be understated: The propulsion vehicle became the largest of its kind to successfully launch a payload into space. The launch marks a milestone in humankind’s journey to advance space exploration and potentially send people to other planets.

Falcon Heavy’s successful launch demonstrates recent advancements and burgeoning interest in space travel. On SpaceX’s YouTube livestream, 2.3 million people watched the launch of a rocket potentially capable of taking humanity to Mars.

While some individuals have rightly praised SpaceX for its progress, we must understand the future of space exploration and development does not rest on private companies alone. At a time when private firms are heavily involved in space exploration and research, their achievements must be viewed as the culmination of a partnership with public agencies.

The popular conception of space exploration and rocket ships is largely centered on government projects and NASA. At the mention of space, our minds float to images of Apollo 11 — the manned mission that put humanity on the moon — and rocket launch countdowns, all bearing the logo of the agency we associate with space more often than not.

However, the space race that propelled exploration and advancements forward occurred during the Cold War, when global tensions spawned a highly competitive environment for the sake of national security. As a result, the U.S. government allocated millions of dollars to NASA for the development of rockets, satellites and missions to the moon.

Since the Cold War’s end, however, NASA has faced significant budget cuts, stunting the agency’s own research and progress in space exploration.

Adjusted for inflation, the agency’s 2017 budget is about half of what it was in the 1960s, when the United States sent astronauts into orbit and to the moon, according to ResearchGate, a information-sharing website made by and for scientists. Today, the agency receives about $19.3 billion from the federal government — less than 0.05 percent of the total federal budget, as reported by The Atlantic. As a result, NASA has cancelled several missions, including a plan to send a research vessel to an asteroid and a satellite lander to one of Jupiter’s moons.

While a limited budget often prohibits NASA’s pursuit of significant projects, the agency has found a way to continue its pioneering work. The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 allowed NASA to engage and partner with private companies. Because of this legislation, the private-public partnerships between NASA and companies continue to allow the agency to overcome its budget shortcomings and help others make progress in the realm of space.

SpaceX is a prime example of the benefits fostered by this partnership. After the company was founded in 2002, NASA provided it with multimillion-dollar contracts to develop new rockets and send payloads to the International Space Station, a hub of research and technology that floats 1,200 miles above the earth’s surface.

Since then, SpaceX has successfully delivered resources to the ISS, in addition to launching research satellites into space and successfully developing, testing and using self-landing and reusable rockets. Reusable rockets save about $5 million per launch and solve an expensive problem that has plagued the aerospace industry since its inception.

The partnership and contracts between SpaceX and NASA have led to exciting developments in the space industry, such as the Falcon Heavy’s first test. Yet, it would be wrong to simply attribute development and advancements in space exploration to SpaceX alone.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, founded in 2000, manufactures reusable rockets for NASA satellites and defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing. It also is partnering with Boeing, NASA and other governments to deliver satellites into low orbit.

While companies like Blue Origin are less recognizable than SpaceX, they play a crucial role in the future of space exploration and discovery. In addition, their achievements rest on the involvement and cooperation of government agencies like NASA. Without million-dollar contracts from NASA, SpaceX would struggle to develop new and advanced rockets. Similarly, without aerospace company Orbital ATK’s provision of rockets, which carry new, advanced tools and cargo to the ISS, NASA would be unable to properly conduct research and experiments.

The launch of new rockets and satellites demonstrates the continued investment and interest toward space. However, we are mistaken if we view recent advancements and achievements as stemming from private companies alone. Rather, the recent progress should be attributed to public agencies like NASA, which create an environment for successes and awe-inspiring rockets.

If we see even greater progress in space exploration in the future, it will be from the private-public partnerships happening right now in the U.S. space industry.

Humza Moinuddin is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Ones and Zeros appears online every other Wednesday.


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  3. Aamir Moinuddin says:

    Good Read – Keep it up.

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