More Giant Steps for Humankind?

July 20, 2020

July 20th, 1969, 4:17 pm EDT: with less than 30 seconds of fuel left, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land the Apollo 11 lunar module “Eagle” on the moon. Back on Earth, less than a month later, Neil Armstrong tells the televised world that this mission, one small instant in history, represented the “beginning of a new age.”

For most of America, the successful 1969 commute to the moon meant the end of the Space Race, which began with the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. The glamour of lunar exploration had hit its peak, and public support for large NASA budgets began to wane. The Apollo program lasted only three more years, and the Saturn V rockets were repurposed for the Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab test projects. The ceremonious end to the Space Race took place during the nine-day Apollo-Soyuz project. This mission brought together previous rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union, and concluded memorably in a space handshake witnessed by millions watching on television.

The next step in space exploration was America’s launch of Skylab, the world’s first crewed research laboratory in space, weighing in at 170,000 pounds! Three three-manned crews would spend a total of 171 days and 13 hours in the Skylab workshop and make extraordinary discoveries about the response of the human body during long-duration space trips. Work on space stations subsequently became an area of international collaboration. The International Space Station is the largest ever constructed, and includes elements from Canada, Russia, Japan, U.S. and the participating countries of the European Space Agency. For a virtual tour check out the following website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkYz43qALMU

The 21st century has ushered in a new age of space exploration. With efforts turning towards reliable routine transportation, and the possibility of Mars colonization, space exploration in the United States has experienced a major evolution. Since the final flight of the space shuttle program in 2011, NASA and the US government have taken a backseat on space exploration operations, focusing instead on partnership and/or complete outsourcing to private companies and individuals.

Since 2010, NASA has invested more than $8.2 billion in the Commercial Crew program, a public-private partnership between NASA, aerospace manufacturer Boeing, and Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. Over the last decade, the private sector has managed to revive public excitement for space exploration, and on a budget! SpaceX now handles about two-thirds of NASA’s launches, for as little as $62 million per launch. Since 2011, the US has been catching a ride to the International Space Station aboard Russia’s Soyuz rocket for around $80 million a seat. By comparison, during NASA’s space shuttle program the average cost per launch was $1.2 billion!

The privatization of space travel, and the resulting reduction in costs, means more access to space, more diversity in the voices that create technology, and hopefully, ultimately, a greater understanding of this bountiful, inspiring universe that we call home. Today, let us look to the stars and remember – onwards and upwards, my friends.

Whitney Butler