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Big Rocket, Soft Power

Over the course of a week in March 2019, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft completed a test mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that included a successful launch, docking, re-entry, splashdown, and recovery. Though no one was aboard the test flight, the mission was a triumph for American aerospace company SpaceX and a potential death knell for the Russian national space agency, Roscosmos. Roscosmos tweeted a backhanded congratulations to SpaceX, praising their achievement while emphasizing that “flight safety must be immaculate.” Whether intentional or not, the comment’s tone is suggestive of the threat that SpaceX poses to the Russian space agency. Currently, NASA partners with Roscosmos to taxi the crew to and from the ISS. Should the Crew Dragon shuttle succeed as a more affordable means of shuttling crew, Roscosmos stands to lose some $400 million per year in payments from NASA. Meanwhile, the Russian government is cutting spending on space exploration, and the combined fiscal strain on Roscosmos threatens to permanently cripple the agency.

It makes sense for Americans to celebrate the success of an American company, especially over a rival like Russia. Even so, we should carefully consider the implications of a private company, albeit on a public contract, effectively threatening to end Roscosmos, a prestigious and longstanding public space program. We should not assume that our own programs will remain safe from a fate like that of Roscosmos simply because SpaceX happens to be on NASA’s contract today. NASA does not own the Crew Dragon—SpaceX does—and if the company fulfills its goal of independent space research and exploration, it could easily become a competitive threat to NASA, as it currently is to Roscosmos. To preempt the obsolescence of NASA, the US should stop contracting private companies for its major space exploration endeavors. Instead, it should invest in making NASA self-sufficient and technologically superior to private agencies and foreign state programs.

One might argue that if NASA can only succeed through public-private contracting, then the agency’s role in space research and exploration deserves to be overtaken by companies like SpaceX. Public-private contracts have become necessary as NASA sends astronauts and supplies to the ISS. This is in part because Congress has gradually decreased funding for NASA, which currently accounts for 0.4 percent of the federal budget, forcing the agency to abandon its space shuttle program. This is also why NASA contracted the cheaper services of the Soyuz space shuttle from Roscosmos to begin with. SpaceX, in turn, won its contract by offering to build the Dragon shuttle for $2.9 billion, undercutting Boeing’s projected costs of around $4 billion. Roscosmos, facing cuts of around $2 billion from the Russian government, could not compete with the two private companies. For free-market enthusiasts, the saga provides an appealing narrative of private enterprise outperforming big government, and it appears that space research can only move forward by making room for private aerospace firms.

NASA and its projects, however, should be judged not only by their price tag but also by their ability to promote American soft power. The latter justifies increasing investment in the public agency. Soft power, or the capacity of a country to influence international affairs through some combination of its perceived cultural, civic, and technological achievements, is a key diplomatic tool. All Americans have a vested interest in increasing American soft power, particularly as more authoritarian powers seek to expand their geopolitical influence.

" America should not assume that its own programs will remain safe from a fate like that of Roscosmos simply because SpaceX happens to be on NASA’s contract today. NASA does not own the Crew Dragon—SpaceX does—and if the company fulfills its goal of independent space research and exploration, it could easily become a competitive threat to NASA, as it currently is to Roscosmos. "

However, American hegemony is quickly eroding under President Trump. Polling from Gallup shows global approval of US leadership has declined from a net favorability of 20 percentage points in 2016 down to negative 13 points in 2017. According to a collaborative study between the London-based communications firm Portland and the University of Southern California, the US has fallen from first to fourth place in global soft power rankings since 2016. Taken together, these numbers indicate that the US is in dire need of a public-relations boost. When people lose faith in American leadership, our capacity to lead non-coercively is greatly diminished. We need to retain the moral, scientific, and political leverage that comes with international respect, and we should look immediately to NASA as a means of doing so. 

One might wonder whether boosting American private companies is also a valid source of soft power. After all, American companies are symbols of a uniquely American ideology of free-market capitalism, and their success is the success of American economic policy. What this argument fails to consider is that the primary threat to American legitimacy today is our democratically elected president and the anti-science, anti-Enlightenment values he promotes. A democratically sanctioned scientific effort could ameliorate this dent in the American image, and only a public and democratically accountable agency like NASA can provide this buffer. Moreover, America’s global standing is more uncertain than ever, but by permanently increasing NASA’s funding, we can help preserve our future geopolitical influence. 

There is precedent for using NASA as a political tool. During the Cold War, much of the early investment in the agency was driven by the pressures of the space race with the Soviet Union: The Apollo missions and other US efforts were motivated by a fear that Soviet achievements such as the Sputnik would confer technological and political legitimacy to Soviet communism while the US lagged behind. By investing heavily in NASA and the Apollo missions, the US became the first country to land astronauts on the moon, a feat still considered one of the most inspiring technological achievements in human history. Even though the Cold War has ended, the symbolism of space exploration remains potent. Seventy-two percent of Americans believe that it is “essential” that the US maintains its status as a world leader in space exploration.  

To guarantee that the US reaps the soft-power benefits of space excellence, NASA must become a funding priority. If private companies continue to receive public contracts and NASA funding continues to stagnate, the agency will be forced to rely more on private products and services to accomplish even the most basic of missions. We should cast a wary eye on Roscosmos’ bleak future as the downfall of the Russian space corporation, as it could signal a major threat both to NASA and to America’s role as the leader of the free world. To ensure that American innovation continues to be recognized, we must stand behind public agencies such as NASA—it’s to invest in them.

Photo: NASA Logo