NASA is losing the global space race.
How is that possible? NASA is, at present, the preeminent organization in spaceflight, human or otherwise. With dozens of successful Mars probes, decades of continuous human presence in space and plans for a manned return to the moon, NASA is far ahead of nearly all other spaceflight actors today. And yet, with all that, they are losing, because fewer and fewer people care.
NASA is ceding the mantle to upstarts like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. While NASA works its way through decades-long timelines and contemplates human boots on the moon in the 2030s, SpaceX wows audiences with flashy stunts like launching cars into space and promising a Mars settlement within the decade. The trouble here is that not that SpaceX is likely to accomplish all its lofty goals — it’s that, amongst one of the greatest rushes in enthusiasm for space travel in this century, NASA is losing out on talent, interest and funding.
How can NASA recover the mantle of “cool”? New administrator Jim Bridenstine has some ideas. Looking at the proliferation of NASA logos on T-shirts and lunch boxes, he proposes trying to push NASA as a recognizable brand — by allowing corporate sponsorship of spacecraft, or, for instance, astronauts to appear on cereal boxes. The hope is that perhaps if NASA was more recognizable, people would pay more attention to the latest iteration of the journey to Mars.
This is a terrible idea. Name recognition is not quite NASA’s problem — those T-shirts are selling for a reason. Instead, the issue is reigniting passion. SpaceX is winning the battle by focusing intentionally on cool factors. They built reusable rockets because nobody had done it before. They focus on aesthetics — white, sweeping lines and a “Star Trek” art style — in everything they do. NASA could come up with a more inspiring architecture than a space station orbiting the moon, which strikes many people as a bland repeat of past glories. But lacking concrete policy changes, NASA should harness its remaining advantage over SpaceX and the other upstarts: gravitas.
The truth is that SpaceX’s playful, excited aesthetic comes at a cost. The pop-culture references (SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a reference to the Millennium Falcon from “Star Wars”) and occasional sacrificing of practicality for aesthetics ( SpaceX’s new rocket, Starship, is said to have been designed to resemble the spacecraft used in Tintin) bespeak a lack of seriousness, a wide-eyed, almost childish perspective on space exploration. Mr. Musk has not been helping matters with his immature and absurd running commentary on Twitter. And the culture that results is prone to exclusivity, “bro culture,” and the countless other foibles of Silicon Valley.
NASA can strike a contrast by designing space missions that focus on grand strides for humankind. Thanks to its unique position and history, NASA is one of the very few organizations that can harness both nationalistic pride and an international, humanist spirit in a way SpaceX just can’t match. When NASA had a chance to send something to deep space, it sent the Voyager tapes, a touching compilation of life on Earth for aliens to find. When SpaceX had a chance, it sent Mr. Musk’s sports car.
Selling astronaut sponsorships works counter to all these goals. Astronauts on cereal boxes erode the impression that NASA is a national effort, funded by all Americans on behalf of all Americans, and instead makes it just another spaceflight contender scrapping for funds. Crucially, it erodes NASA’s gravitas, putting them in the same category as Nike and Coca-Cola. The revenue and recognition this would generate is not worth NASA’s single largest asset in the battle for talent, money and support. NASA comes in peace for all mankind. It should not come to our breakfast tables.
— Thomas White ’20, member of Stanford Student Space Initiative
Contact Thomas White at thwhite ‘at’ stanford.edu.