How Space Exploration Propels Scientific Discovery, Tourism, Mining, and the Economy

Darrell M. West

It is a period of extraordinary discovery for space exploration. For the first time in human history, a man-made vehicle has traveled beyond the solar system into interstellar space. Thirty-six years into its mission, Voyager 1 continues to send signals and reveal crucial information regarding the nature of the universe. The Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on Mars meanwhile have found persuasive evidence that the Red Planet was wet and warm in its distant past. Combined with evidence of water on other bodies within the solar system, the Mars research offers tantalizing clues regarding the possibility of life elsewhere around the universe. Scientists also have used space telescopes to estimate the age of the cosmos (around 13.8 billion years old) and come up with credible theories on how the universe expanded between the Big Bang and the current period.

But this is not your grandfather’s space program. A few decades ago, space exploration was a government-run enterprise operated largely by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Most U.S. manned and unmanned missions were financed and overseen by the federal government. It had uncertain economic benefits. Both of those features have changed in recent years.

The Privatization of Space Exploration

Increasingly, however, space exploration features a significant role for private companies. SpaceX has a federal contract to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Companies such as Sierra Nevada and Orbital Sciences are launching satellites and sending vehicles into space. Lockheed Martin and Boeing play an important role in space launches. Space tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, SpaceX, Boeing, Bigelow Aerospace, and Blue Origins hope to offer space travel opportunities in the near future.

Yet there remain unresolved questions regarding the future of space exploration. What role should private companies play? How should government contracts be awarded, and should there be competitive bidding on major contracts? Who should set priorities between manned and unmanned missions?

Economic and Environmental Benefits

Questions about the space program take on special importance during a period of budget scarcity and uncertainty regarding future missions. For example, should exploration focus on Mars or asteroids that have the potential to devastate Earth? There are both economic and environmental benefits of exploration. Mars long has tantalized humans curious about its origins and wondering how a warm and wet planet turned into a cold and desolate place. The lessons for Earthlings about climate change and large-scale environmental catastrophe are quite clear. Paying attention to long-term climate trends is very much in our self-interest.

At the same time, scientists understand that asteroids represent a potential threat to life on Earth and that many of them are likely to contain valuable minerals. Several companies financed by billionaires are touting the economic benefits of future space mining. Recognizing both the opportunities and the risks, NASA has a mission planned that hopes to capture an asteroid and place it in orbit around the Moon for extended study and analysis. If that mission turns out well, it could represent a prototype for future economic enterprise. It may be that future generations reap considerable economic benefits of space exploration.

To investigate these and other questions, tune into our A. Alfred Taubman Forum on “The Future of the U.S. Space Program”. It will be webcast at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 and will feature leading scientific experts and business executives who work in the space area. You can sign up to attend or watch here.