Since the earliest days of the industrial era, individual entrepreneurs have led the way in discovery and application of technologies that upended the existing status quo. The outsized contribution of small business to the nation’s economy continues to the present and propels America’s revived deep space ambitions.
NASA’s Artemis program strives to return humans to the lunar surface, and small businesses are at the core of the initiative. In fact, two-thirds of the supplier companies constructing the massive Artemis rocket that will launch astronauts to the moon and Mars, the Space Launch System (SLS), are small businesses. In terms of numbers, that is 800 supplier companies across 43 states.
The most recent data from the Small Business Administration reveals that NASA provides $2.8 billion per year directly to small businesses, with another $3 billion subcontracted through larger companies. These small businesses currently provide the Artemis program with an array of material solutions and services that include design of guidance, navigation, and control systems, to the fabrication of structural components for crew module thermal protection. Without the start-ups, individual innovators, and owner-operators who comprise the national economic fabric, we won’t get back to the moon.
For decades NASA’s funding stalled out at around $19 billion, largely to keep the agency ready to return to deep space human exploration, but hardly more. To its credit, over the years NASA methodically shepherded programs such as SLS and the Orion crew module while maintaining the International Space Station (ISS). These actions preserved the ability for American crews to once again leap from low Earth orbit of 250 miles back to our closest celestial cousin 250,000 miles away.
NASA’s Artemis program components, including the SLS exploration rocket and Orion spacecraft, are unique in their support for small businesses across the entire country, providing critical opportunities for manufacturers and innovators to contribute to the space program. While all leading-edge industrial advances come with risk, robust Congressional funding for NASA can ensure these fragile supply chains don’t break.
Aside from macro-economic considerations, the intrinsic personal importance of space exploration cannot be overstated. Indeed, the technological DNA of every mobile device we covet today can trace its origin to the early era of the Space Race. Even when accounting for the total investment in the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo programs, the total cost has been amazingly modest as compared to the immense social and cultural value. As U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark noted, “Providing NASA with the resources it needs to succeed is a small investment that will yield tremendous dividends over time.”
NASA’s new $25.2 billion budget pivots from lofty goals to firmly replanting the flag in the lunar soil. Some will ask if such an endeavor is worth the expense. Of course, many priorities consume the nation’s concerns these days, however history shows that investment in technology yields a stronger recovery from economic downturn and provides the impetus for broad and sustained growth.
After a half century, America is again at the precipice of reaching outward to the moon and beyond. Near term decisions by Congress will have consequence for generations and determine whether the nation’s spacefaring ambitions accelerate or atrophy. But if Congress chooses the better path and funds NASA’s budget request, the future benefit will be incalculable.
Christian Zur leads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s policy formulation and advocacy on civilian and commercial space programs.