Space travel and exploration is one of the greatest technological marvels of the modern world. It has brought humanity to the moon, enabled the improvement of robotics, led to medical innovations, given us more tools to help the environment, and furthered our knowledge of the cosmos. Just like many fields of study in today’s world, space exploration is inextricably linked to our political systems as proven throughout recent decades – during the 1960s, the Space Race was a clash between the Soviet Union and the United States that was driven by nationalist motives and part of the overarching goal of becoming the predominant global hegemon. More recently, there have been domestic political debates on whether the US budget allocated for space exploration should increase, or whether it should be cut. While some politicians argue that space exploration is solely based on human curiosity as opposed to tangible scientific developments that impact our everyday lives, others say that it has helped advance missile systems, GPS, meteorology, and more. Having a deeper understanding of how politics is connected to space exploration enables one to understand divides and obstacles to the expansion of our knowledge of the final frontier for humanity. The politics of space exploration can be viewed from two primary angles – how space exploration impacts politics and how politics impacts space exploration, which helps to inculcate a more complete picture of the complexities which are rife within this arena.
Unfortunately, the portion of the budget allocated to space exploration has overall been in a constant decline from the 1960s and has reached a staggeringly low proportion of less than one percent of the federal budget (Aull 2015). This reality has dire implications for society as space exploration has caused an improvement of military technology in conjunction with positive impacts on the economy: the more exploration, the more fuel, materials, and labor are required (Harrison and Thomas 2016). However, perhaps the most important improvement to society that space exploration can be credited for is enhanced technology. Reynolds corroborates that without investment in programs such as NASA, the world would be devoid of complex communications systems, advanced synthetic materials, pacemakers, modern computing technology and more, which are all major components of day to day life in the 21st century (Reynolds 1982).
How Politics Impacts Space Exploration
Domestic political dynamics can significantly impact both the funding and direction of space exploration. This has been exemplified by recent political events in which a government shutdown has forced many NASA employees to stay at home and suspend non-essential projects (Wall 2019). Furthermore, with the reduction in spending for space programs, it becomes apparent that the system of politics and space exploration is a complex set of tradeoffs as a budget cut for NASA is an increase in funding for education. The interconnectedness between politics and space exploration and funding has been demonstrated throughout the course of history. During the economic crisis of the 1970s that was caused by supply shocks of oil, monetary support for NASA from the federal government plummeted for two primary political reasons (Chambers 2017). First, the government was unable to logistically maintain the prior high level of funding because since oil was scarce during this time, the government was lacking a key resource that was used to supply energy for the entire space program. Second, the public demand for increased funding for NASA was quite low as the citizens, for good reason, prioritized their well-being and required benefits from social safety net programs that would impact them immediately, instead of space exploration programs that would yield potential benefits for the future, but had no impact on the citizens at that moment in time. This public sentiment was exacerbated by the fact that man had already been on the moon a few years prior to the recession, and many Americans viewed that as an endpoint to America’s space endeavors – thereby reducing support after the moon landing (Hsu 2011). All of these historical examples prove that whether America and the rest of the world will reap the benefits of space exploration are contingent on what is prioritized on each policymaker’s agenda.
The Impact of Space Exploration on Politics
On the contrary, space exploration can impact political conditions. However, instead of its effect being on domestic politics, it is primarily on international politics since space exploration can demonstrate a nation’s technological superiority which is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century. This is the reason why NASA is pursuing its program to put humans on Mars – it would put the US in a league above other nations in terms of its achievements regarding technological innovation (Lambwright 2015). Additionally, by looking at events such as the Space Race, it becomes apparent that countries attempt to leverage the level of development in their space programs to exert control over other nations via technological prowess. It was an event in which “the image of scientific and technological superiority had very real, far-reaching geopolitical consequences” because it conveyed a sense of power to other nations – making them believe that an alliance with the ‘winner’ of the space race would lead to more security for themselves (Muir-Harmony 2017). Compounding this effect is the discoveries that come as a result of a successful space operation which satisfies the demand of the modern era of improving technology to maximize the efficiency of production, cure more diseases, and improve the standard of living for all. As history has progressed, it has become apparent that technology has had a great influence on the lives of individuals, rivaling, if not exceeding, the role played by the government: this is why space exploration has recently been making a comeback. Governments want to have some authority over the tools that will shape the future of humanity and hence are looking to invest in space because, in the past, it has been the primary reason for the creation of numerous advancements, including but not limited to GPS, satellites, and an enhanced capability to monitor climatic variations (Ahuja 2018).
Resolving the Declining Support for Space Programs
Space exploration has undoubtedly had a lasting impact on society, however, several political constraints exist as most programs are government-controlled – hindering the efficacy of these programs. A few solutions have been proposed to limit hinderances caused by political conditions unfavorable to advancing space exploration. First, many advocate that the government should pass policies that force NASA to reveal how they will prioritize their budget and why changes are being made to the budget. While the United States has been quite transparent with how they are spending money, the vast majority of the public believes that the funds are being allocated into wasteful projects and should move towards projects that are effective in enhancing our understanding of the cosmos. A policy such as this would force the individuals who work for NASA to make the best use of their money so that it can be justified back to the public – making exploration more effective (Beale 2017). Another compelling solution is granting more support for third-party space programs such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. By lending control to these corporations as opposed to a government-run agency, the people who control the resource allocation towards space funding will not be influenced by political factors as their primary driver will be profits. This is quite beneficial for the development of space exploration since there are a variety of ways in which profits can be achieved from outer space: asteroid mining, satellite infrastructure, and more (Frankowski 2017). Furthermore, if a government wishes for the exploration of a certain extraterrestrial object, there can be subsidies granted to incentivize companies to start researching that object – resolving any potential scenario in which corporations rarely investigate the parts of the cosmos that have more of a research than a profit incentive. In essence, space exploration today is inextricably linked to the political systems of today for the better or worse and by integrating ways to better manage and balance this connection, humanity will make discoveries that are truly out of this world.
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