The FAA, part of the Biden administration, has set conservative media alight with its recent cancelation of approval for further SpaceX testing. Many are doubting the wisdom of hamstringing American space exploration considering how aggressively the Chinese are developing their own capabilities.
However, the issue is not necessarily a conservative one. Many have openly questioned how willing the Biden administration will be to retain the services of SpaceX, thus putting the company’s plans for a manned colony on Mars into serious doubt.
While certainly a sad development if true, there might actually be a lot to be gained by putting the brakes on SpaceX, from geopolitical concessions to big advances in space policy. Indeed, uniting the nation, and potentially the world, in space exploration efforts might turn out to be far more pragmatic than leaving it to a private (for profit) company to put humanity’s best foot forward.
So, despite there being no official announcement as to U.S. policy regarding SpaceX, there exists a lot of room to speculate.
That being said, it is worth mentioning just how big of an asset SpaceX is.
SpaceX broke 50 years of stagnation in space exploration by overcoming spaceflight’s biggest obstacle, money. With a budget set by legislators, NASA has to continually justify its own existence to Congress in order to keep operating. Unfortunately, the benefits of space exploration, while massive, are never immediate.
Lawmakers prefer to spend money on things that bring immediate tangible benefits which translate into votes. Thus, the past five decades have seen NASA’s budget fall by almost 90% (inflation adjusted). That, combined with the decay of the Russian space program means that manned spaceflight has been, rather embarrassingly, treading water since the 60's.
Meanwhile, crewed space missions are the future of the human species. They drive innovation and industry while also feeding our innate desire to explore. Many theorize that our only shot at survival as a species is to leave Earth and colonize other worlds.
In that light, SpaceX has been the answer to many people’s dreams, free of bureaucracy and able to inspire the world in its pursuit of the unknown.
So, for the Biden administration to take an antagonistic role towards such a company, one would hope to at least get something good out of it. Luckily, there may exist an opportunity to parlay this into serious concessions from the Chinese.
As with so many other subjects these days, the SpaceX controversy involves China. The Asian country is poised to take a leading role in space exploration and there is currently a race going on between the Chinese government and SpaceX for bragging rights as to who will be first to Mars.
So, it would appear that hamstringing SpaceX would be the exact opposite of what the U.S. wants to do. However, it might make perfect sense if they're looking to trade Mars bragging rights for something else.
Landing on Mars would be the greatest accomplishment in human history and for a country so reliant on national unity as China, the opportunity to lay claim to such an achievement would be the ultimate validation of the Communist Party and its ideals.
Meanwhile, the United States’ days as the world’s number one power are limited. The Chinese will not only be the largest economy, but their use of soft power has extended their influence all over the globe. So, like it or not, the United States is going to have to learn to not only live with China, but also to share power with them. How it does so will have a huge impact on daily American life.
The 20th century saw two instances of superpowers having to accept a mightier country taking their place. In the case of the British Empire, they chose a friendly attitude towards the US and managed to keep a privileged position in international negotiations which continue to benefit them today. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union chose to antagonize the U.S. and the two nations nearly destroyed the world in the process.
So IF, and that’s a big if, the U.S. was looking to reverse its Trump-era adversarial stance towards China, then SpaceX, a private company that isn’t even part of the government, would make the perfect sacrificial lamb. There’s not much public money invested in it and the Chinese would be getting the biggest PR victory in history.
Moreover, from the perspective of the human race, the fewer entities competing in space, the better.
Cooperation in space is going to be imperative as technology keeps developing. Not only is it a moral necessity, but it will be safer for the whole planet if our space exploration efforts were united into one agency.
Ideally, we would treat space as separate from the planet itself – similar to the way that Antarctica exists outside the influence of individual nations.
Yet, as it stands, the Outer Space Treaty explicitly allows the militarization of space and is ambiguous towards exploiting space resources. Meanwhile, humanity has absolutely zero international protocol for hypothetical contact with extraterrestrials.
In short, we’re woefully unprepared to truly become a spacefaring species.
As we’ve written before, competition for resources and power in space could be devastating. From ruining celestial bodies, to destroying the Earth, to botching contact with extraterrestrials, the dangers associated with advanced technology, national rivalry, and space exploration will likely necessitate uniting under one entity in space. After all, it's far too easy to imagine a country like the U.S. stealing resources from the “Chinese side” of the Moon, or even from the “extraterrestrial side” and sparking the type of conflict that would make all of Earth a casualty.
So, regardless of the current geopolitical situation between the U.S. and China, if humanity wants to become a truly spacefaring species, it would behoove us to recognize that the need to cooperate in space is much more pressing than our desires for tribalism. In that light, there just isn’t much room for a private company, acting independently, to explore space on behalf of all mankind.
The current SpaceX issue between them and the FAA might not be an indicator of policy. It could just be the FAA being punitive over an unauthorized launch.
However, that begs the question of why the FAA is not authorizing important launches. Considering the FAA's nearly non-existent policy on pollution from air travel, the environmental explanation seems unlikely.
So, if it is the beginning of government interference with independent space exploration, then that doesn’t necessarily translate into something objectively bad, especially if the U.S. can get some big concessions for it.
The real issue is, if the U.S. does take a more cooperative role with China, how can we be sure that space exploration doesn’t return to the snails-pace progression it has had for the last 50 year?
Exploration is a natural urge and it only ever brings good results. No one wants to return to the pre-SpaceX pace of exploration as all that would succeed in is wasting time and putting off the inevitable.
In the end, one can only hope that, whatever is happening between the government and SpaceX, that it keeps on delivering better results than the ones we've become accustomed to. However, it's worth noting that anything other than SpaceX is still a government operation.
Do you think the U.S. will be pragmatic about its transition to the world’s number 2?