Last week, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, a document that changes America’s space policy. It reorganizes the government’s focus on space travel and exploration while pushing for larger and more specific cooperation between the federal and private sector. What is most important is that for the first time since 1972, America plans to have one of its own on the moon again.
“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond,” said President Trump next to “space greats” like Buzz Aldrin, Christina Koch, and Senator Harrison “Jack” Schmitt.
However, the essential logistical and federal hurdles to make President Trump and his excited Vice President’s dreams come true are quite foreboding and challenging. These hurdles include lengths of new paperwork, huge if not momentous increases in spending, and most importantly cronyism that could potentially strike this directive. Cronyism has the potential to turn these dreams among the stars into federal nightmares of explosions in the stratosphere.
In this case, cronyism allows politicking to get in the way of science and progress. Of course, this is no surprise, especially in the game of governmental contracts. What better way to get a contract picked then to cozy oneself up to politicians that are very involved in your chosen industry?
NASA and other federal space programs are no different when it comes to picking favorites. It is true that the line between being qualified and more qualified is blurred – especially in an industry with so little competition – but it becomes suspicious when someone wins the department’s favor, even after showing early signs of unreliability.
In this case, the golden child seems to be SpaceX, led by Elon Musk. Say what you will about Elon Musk – as a writer I have criticized him on several occasions – but he does have large and awe-inspiring ambitions. However, he has also become one of the best examples of an individual who knows how to cozy up with the government, while many times not fully delivering on his promises.
SpaceX first came into the good graces of NASA and other federal agencies through its highly competitive prices, but it has proven to have a largely unfavorable track record. Not only are its launches perpetually delayed, but it also has a large number of rocket failures and explosions that have cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars (for example, the 2016 explosion of the Falcon 9 costing $62 million dollars, or the 2015 explosion costing $110 million dollars).
More recently, after announcing multiple delays, SpaceX’s “Zuma” launch of a classified government satellite was postponed indefinitely in November. Also in November, the company added another flare-up to its name. The “Block 5” Merlin engine – the older brother to the “Block 4” engine used in all the current Falcon 9 rockets – caused an explosion that rocked SpaceX facilities. This explosion is notable, largely because this will be the engine that will carry most valuable cargo: human life.
It is so notable because SpaceX’s previous investigations have been less thorough and suspiciously vague. In 2015 Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology questioned SpaceX’s Falcon 9 failure. He wrote to NASA expressing frustration over the fact that an independent review team was not formed to investigate the causes of this case, as happened a year earlier for a competing company’s mess-up. The biggest worry to Rep. Smith seemed to not lie in the mechanical technicalities, but rather the fact that NASA possibly circumnavigated releasing a public summary for the benefit of one institution.
Even as popular as space is, there are many who would otherwise hope to end spending in the space sector. If the federal government can’t keep cronyism in check, perhaps there is no better alternative than to cut funding altogether.
However, the White House has signed this directive and plans to move forward. Since the status quo is now space exploration, the government must make it worthwhile by becoming responsible for every penny it spends. If the United States plans to continue to work with SpaceX, the government needs to hold the company to its promises. There cannot be any hypocrisy, discrimination, or cronyism when it comes to space; especially when there are billions of dollars and human lives at stake.
Space is the final frontier; it would be disastrous if it were to be ruined by cronyism.