Reaching for the Stars: The SpaceX Story

Michael Geiger

“We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” While this quote belongs to Matthew McConaughey’s character Joseph Cooper in the movie Interstellar, you could be forgiven for attributing it to Elon Musk. In 2002, the South African billionaire founded SpaceX and made it his mission to create a “true spacefaring civilization.”

On February 6th, 2018, Musk took one small step in his pursuit, as SpaceX successfully launched their Falcon Heavy rocket into space. By the end of the day, it had already exceeded Mars’ orbit and was on its way to the asteroid belt.

The Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket in the world, and can carry a payload of up to 141,000 pounds into space. Its next closest competitor is the Delta IV Heavy, a rocket with a budget three times that of the Falcon Heavy and half the carrying capacity. Musk’s rocket is one of history’s great technological marvels, but should it have even been made?

As of August 2017, three of Elon Musk’s companies (including SpaceX) had received roughly $4.9 billion in government subsidies. Just hearing the words “government subsidies” and “billion” in the same sentence should activate the conservatives gag reflex, and I have strong skepticism regarding the viability of Tesla and SolarCity. But, Musk’s contributions related to SpaceX merit federal assistance.

While the dust settled following Falcon Heavy’s successful launch, an important detail escaped much of the media coverage from the day: SpaceX was able to land two of their three rocket boosters safely onto platforms near the launch site. The ability to reuse rockets is unprecedented, and will sharply decrease the costs associated with space travel.

Politically, the issue is a fairly muddled and convoluted one. The debate over America’s role in space exploration is one that’s never been a definitive part of the conservative platform, and Republican candidates have been all over the board on the issue in the last couple elections. 

In 2012, Donald Trump tweeted, “It is very sad to see what @BarackObama has done with NASA. He has gutted the program and made us dependent on the Russians.” However in 2015, Trump stated at a town hall in reference to space program funding, “Right now we’ve got bigger problems – you understand that? 

During the 2012 campaign, Newt Gingrich announced his intentions to build a manned base on the moon by 2020. Mitt Romney disagreed, arguing that government funding would be better spent at home than in space.

Ted Cruz, on the other hand, is one of Congress’s biggest proponents for an expanded space program. He chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, and in 2015 said, “We should once again lead the way for the world in space exploration.” 

As shown by the lack of consensus regarding the issue, it appears that space exploration runs right down a fissure line in the conservative platform. Speaking in a strictly fiscal sense, the further exploration of space provides no benefit to domestic interests. However, the ethos of American exceptionalism demands our constant pressure on the boundaries of science. 

Similar to the development of artificial intelligence, there is a certain responsibility that comes with advancing technology for space exploration. There is enough mystery in what future research might bring that humanity must tread carefully. In that sense, there is an argument to be made that America has a duty to take the leading role in the pursuit of all that lies outside our earthly grasp. 

SpaceX is by no stretch of the imagination perfect. It’s technically a private company, but it’s also clear example of crony capitalism and the government should exercise far more oversight in doling out its cash. But despite its flaws, the company’s workforce is 100% American, and it’s run by a visionary who is about as pro-American as it gets. If anybody is going to boldly go where no man has gone before, it might as well be us.