The end of a decade: Space travel explodes in popularity and frequency

As part of our decade in review, one of the massive highlights is the leaps forward we have taken in space travel. The last ten years have seen the imagining of a satellite constellation and a quiet plane as fast as Concorde – whatever next?!
Boeing NASA Starliner
The Boeing CST Starliner can carry up the seven people in orbit for seven months. Photo: Boeing

The future frontier

When we talk about space travel, one company and one name come up repeatedly. Elon Musk and SpaceX.

There is little doubt that SpaceX dominates the space exploration industry, and are making headlines almost every week.

Having seen ten years of privatisation of space transportation, what does this mean for the future? Following a comment from one of our readers, I was prompted to look into this further.

It turns out, the comment was spot on (thank you!). NASA’s annual budget stood at $5 billion in the 1960s. By 1974, this has been cut to $3 billion – that is a 40% cut.

I have really tried to find a tangible reason for this, and have come up empty-handed. It is a matter of fact that NASA achieved tremendous successes in this time. After the moon landing of 1969 (budget at the time $4 billion) the Space Shuttle program looked to continue innovating and exploring the limits of space travel.

However, despite the success of the joint space venture between the US and the Soviet Union in 1975, government budgets continued to decline in the following years.

Lockheed Martin X-59 QueSST
The Lockheed Martin X-59 QueSST is as fast as Concorde, but silent. Image: Wiki

Current space investment

As it stands, the NASA annual budget is $21.5 billion in 2019. That makes up 0.49% of the US spending plans, constituting $4.4 trillion.

To clarify my understanding, I wanted to put these budgets into direct comparison. $100 in 1969 is worth about $701 today. A $3 billion budget 50 years ago would be worth roughly $21.03 billion today. That tells me that the 40% cut has never been remedied – NASA is still working on the same equivalent budget as it was in 1969.

I’m not sure what to make of that. Surely as technology advances, and companies like SpaceX (and their competitors) are exploring new realms, the US government should see NASA as a credible budgetary concern?

Anyhow, I’m no fiscal or political expert. What I understand is that NASA is severely underfunded, and therein lies my explanation as to why it contracts out to companies like SpaceX. They simply have better funding, more investment, and more resources.

Apollo was the NASA program that resulted in American astronauts' making a total of 11 spaceflights and walking on the moon.
NASA saw tremendous breakthroughs with the moon landing of 1969. Photo: Wiki Commons

So – to the future

Whilst NASA might be working with tied hands, private companies are not. This decade has seen some breathtaking innovations, the facts of which make my head spin.

And that isn’t to say that NASA hasn’t produced some astonishing developments!

The new X-59 supersonic plane they are developing matches the speed of Concorde but without the sonic boom. The aircraft is being built not by NASA, but by aerospace company Lockheed Martin.

If it all goes to plan, the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft will fly at Mach 1.42 – 1,090 mph. It can travel from London to New York in just three hours.

Bob Pearce, NASA Associate Administrator for Aeronautics says ‘With the completion of the Key Decision Point-D we’ve shown the project is on schedule, it’s well planned and on track. We have everything in place to continue this historic research mission for the nation’s air-travelling public.’

In the meanwhile, SpaceX will continue with their mission to make sustainable life on other planets a possibility. The Starlink satelitte constellation is now well on its way to being created. Once complete, this man-made constellation will supply high-speed internet to the whole world.

My concern remains; private space travel places profits before people. And if the future of humankind lies in the stars, our survival may just depend on how deep our pockets are.

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