It's been a landmark year for space exploration. The James Webb Space Telescope arrived at its destination orbiting the L2 Lagrange Point in January. In late April, an all-private team of astronauts visited the International Space Station for the first time. And later this year, NASA’s Artemis I program will send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to orbit the Moon, in preparation for landing humans on the lunar surface within the next few years.
Yet there are still many challenges to the United States’ ambitions for space exploration. Current NASA funding levels are inadequate for achieving our longstanding scientific goals and assuring U.S. leadership in space exploration. Unless the United States increases its funding commitment, we could fail to reach our goals for 21st-century deep space exploration — from lunar missions in the last half of this decade, to missions to Mars in the 2030s.
None of that is to downplay today’s achievements. Take the Orion spacecraft. Built by Lockheed Martin, the Orion is equipped with the most advanced human life-support systems ever designed — from an exercise machine and food rehydrator to a protective shield against the cosmic radiation of deep space.
Artemis I will be the first in a series of planned flights by NASA’s Space Launch System. Its third mission, Artemis III, will put people back on the Moon for the first time since 1972 — among them the first woman and the first person of color. On the Moon, astronauts will research how the human body responds to low-gravity and high-radiation environments. They will also develop new technologies that could help humans survive beyond Earth, including systems that could turn lunar ice into drinking water, oxygen and rocket propellants.
Our new lunar exploration efforts will serve as preparation for a bigger, more distant venture — the first human mission to Mars.
Low-Earth Orbit Economy
Closer to home, and in the here and now, the International Space Station (ISS) is serving as the hub of what some call the “low-Earth orbit economy,” a growing network of commercial enterprises that will profoundly influence the evolution of aerospace.
Already, Boeing supports NASA’s operations and resupply of the ISS. SpaceX and Boeing fly astronauts there and back, and multiple companies have delivered cargo. Now, private companies including Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Axiom Space are vying — and in some cases, cooperating — to develop space stations that could complement or add to the capabilities of the 22-year-old ISS. NASA has budgeted up to $400 million to launch one or more of these projects.
As we advance human space exploration, robotic systems also have the potential to yield astonishing discoveries. The Webb Telescope, developed by a team led by Northrop Grumman, will allow us to search our universe for habitable planets and galaxies that aren’t observable with current technology. Scientists expect it to help us understand the origins of the universe — almost back to the Big Bang.
At the same time, space technology enables us to look back at Earth in new ways. For example, Maxar Technologies provides satellite platforms that allow organizations to observe our planet from above. They’ve been used to map urban greenspace, track the movement of endangered species, and document a Russian weapons buildup on the Ukrainian border. These capabilities, once exclusively available to governments, can now be used by human rights and environmental groups.
Beyond the potential for learning about our planet and universe, space exploration reaps practical benefits for all of us. Spin-off technologies from NASA programs have included computer chips and CT and MRI scanners. More recently, we can thank NASA for wireless air-quality monitors and robotic gloves that help workers lift heavy objects.
The agency has spun off some 2,000 technologies since 1976. This diffusion of discovery is largely by design. By law, NASA must disseminate the technology it develops via the commercial sector and startups can license NASA patents for free.
Next-Generation STEM Workforce
We shouldn’t take any of this for granted. NASA’s budget — about $24 billion for 2022 — is still at 1990s levels when adjusted for inflation. The White House 2023 budget request would increase NASA funding by 8 percent. Though it’s the largest request in many years, it barely keeps pace with inflation and is nowhere near on par with other science-focused federal agencies.
While the Cold War Space Race pitted the United States against the Soviet Union, today China is America’s top rival. As the U.S. space budget has remained relatively flat considering inflation, Beijing has dramatically increased its capabilities and investments in aerospace.
At $8 billion, China’s space budget is now second only to the United States. But those dollars go further in China, since the government has greater purchasing power in a low-wage economy and less stringent government oversight for public safety and pollution. In 2020, it completed its Beidou satellite network, a potential competitor to the U.S. GPS system. Last year, it launched its Tiangong space station and landed a robotic rover on Mars.
The implications of China’s emergence as a space superpower are practical as well as symbolic. Space and defense technology overlap substantially, so advances in one signal advances in the other.
But deep space exploration isn’t just another “Moon race” against China. And we must not rest on our laurels if we make a return to the Moon before the Chinese get there. Rather, exploration — in cooperation with our allied space partners — should be viewed as an opportunity to address the challenges within our borders.
One of them is a lack of future workers educated in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). A recent study found that U.S. manufacturing firms will need to add about 3.5 million STEM workers, with both college degrees and advanced manufacturing skills, to their ranks by 2025. But as many as 60 percent of these positions risk going unfilled because of a shortage of qualified workers. More funding will help NASA expand its existing K-12 and college education programs — the pipelines for these future professionals.
Importantly, increased funding for Artemis and space science will help inspire the next generation of leaders in STEM, just as it did during the 1960s.
It’s no accident that, in the decades after the Moon landings, there was a revolution in electronics, medicine, biotechnology, and automation. As young Americans watched the United States make history, many were inspired to pursue STEM careers in these industries. Future missions, like Artemis, could have the same impact.
Finally, it’s essential that the United States continues to lead in space by leading in international cooperation. The Space Shuttle program included contributions from Canada and European nations. The ISS is a collaboration among five space agencies and 27 nations over-all. Today, Canada, the European Space Agency, and Japan are all making substantial contributions to Artemis. And 18 countries to date have signed the Artemis Accords, a set of principles to guide civilian use of the Moon for science, exploration, and commercial activities. As we explore our solar system, we should be guided by the spirit of such cooperation.
We have no shortage of accomplishments in space to celebrate. But unless we meet these challenges head on, we can’t fulfill the promise of space exploration. If the United States wants to lead this endeavor in the future, it needs to invest now.
This article is written by Frank Slazer, President and CEO, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration. For more information, visit here .