Last week, scientists announced a groundbreaking discovery in the field of space exploration: NASA’s Messenger probe detected large deposits of water ice in impact craters on Mercury. This discovery confirms what two decades of evidence gathered by radio telescope measurements has long suggested. Mercury has now been added to the growing list of non-Earth bodies in the solar system with water in ice form, joining Earth’s moon, Mars, several of Jupiter’s moons and Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.

Despite the endless excitement this latest report provides for the scientific community and space-race aficionados, the feeling of the general population regarding this news seems to be “so what?”
And in general, that’s the attitude of many Americans toward NASA and its space initiatives. The main point brought up in debates against the U.S. space program is that it consumes too many tax dollars, and, to add insult to injury, there is extremely little return on that investment beyond pretty photos and scientific data — none of which seem immediately useful in improving the lives of people on Earth.

One of the main feelings toward NASA is that, while it had its heyday during the space race and its Apollo program brought us to the moon ahead of the Soviets, it’s high time that its funding be cut and channeled into social programs, green-energy research and other areas that immediately benefit Americans.

For all you NASA fans out there, however, such an undignified end to the agency would not necessarily mean the end of U.S. space exploration as a whole. Recently, nearly 30 private companies, including Orbital Sciences Corporation, Virgin Galactic and, most famously, Space X, have stepped up to the plate and are well on their way to proving themselves capable of many of the same missions, manned and unmanned, currently handled by NASA. The main incentive for this privatization of the U.S. space program is that the money in NASA’s budget could be transferred to government programs in need, resulting in a reduction in spending. Also, for those who choose to spend their money on such private ventures, space exploration would now be conducted with investment-returning goals in mind, such as space tourism and space mining.

In addition, the competitive aspect of the private sector has already caused launch costs to plummet due to improvements in satellite miniaturization, rocket design and other related fields. Due to the innovative capacity of such private companies, the final frontier could soon be much more relevant to the average American.

However, there’s also another approach to consider. Some may prefer not to defund NASA entirely, due to the wide scope of work the agency does. NASA is composed of three mission directorates: Science, Aeronautics Research, and Human Exploration and Operations. It maintains many laboratories and research facilities around the country and has many international partnerships.

The Human Exploration and Operations mission directorate could easily be outsourced to private companies, while Earth-based research, as well as any satellites in orbit tied to that research, could remain with NASA. Additionally, NASA could lease equipment and payload space with private companies if either of its remaining mission directorates needed to do research in space.

This would accomplish several goals: Once again, the budget money devoted to space missions could be reallocated to other government programs, but important research that would not necessarily be a priority to profit-making companies could continue. Finally, NASA itself — arguably a major point of national prestige and pride for the United States — could continue, albeit in a much-reduced form, rather than becoming a historical footnote.

Essentially, last week’s latest NASA discovery has highlighted an important issue that needs to be debated, especially in the face of unending discussion of reducing national expenditures in the face of an insurmountable and continually growing national debt.

The need to cut certain government programs to save money is clear, and NASA is a perfect example. The agency’s funding can be reallocated to where it is needed in other government programs or, more radically, be entirely cut in order to reduce spending.
But due to the important scientific and engineering roles NASA plays on the ground that do benefit people directly, the best option is not to entirely defund the agency. Rather, the government should allow NASA’s Earth-based mission directorates to continue, while shifting the responsibility for manned and unmanned space exploration to private companies, to be paid for by private citizens.