The first space race pitted the U.S. vs. the Soviet Union, but now a whole new competition has begun, and it will be a lot more interesting than the first.
This past Saturday a remarkable thing happened. A probe the size of a small car that was launched from China landed on the moon and disgorged onto its surface a rover weighing 260 pounds. The rover Yutu, whose name translates into Jade Rabbit, can carry a 44-pound payload, transmit video in real time, perform simple analyses of soil samples, navigate inclines, sports a bright red-and-yellow Chinese flag, and is the first man-made object to leave tracks on the surface of the moon in 40 years.
For space geeks of all nationalities, the landing is great news. It represents the first ‘soft-landing’ on the moon since a Soviet landing in 1976 and provides Earth-bound scientists the opportunity to gather more data on the moon’s geological makeup, topological features, and gives humanity a brand new vantage point from which to make off-world astronomical observations.
For China, of course, it represents a tremendous feather in their technological cap and marks it as only the third sovereign state to ever have soft-landed on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor.
Even the American space agency NASA, which normally has taken a politely impressed but nonetheless ‘been there, done that’ attitude to foreign space missions, has noted the Chinese moon landing is an important achievement that provides a sorely needed opportunity to do important lunar science.
“Although there is no cooperation between the U.S. and China on these missions, U.S. researchers could see potentially interesting science from the landing,” NASA officials said in an official statement.
China’s current robotic mission to the moon, which has been preceded by two orbiting missions and is to be followed by two more soft landings with a potential return mission thrown in, is part of a long-standing, multi-year quest to dramatically increase China’s space capabilities. Indeed, it is part-and-parcel of China’s larger program of civilian and military modernization that was put in place by the country’s so-called third-generation of communist leaders, all of whom took power at approximately the same time the U.S.-Soviet Cold War ended.
Since then, China’s communist rulers have ordered the creation of an independent space agency, which beyond having a logo that looks suspiciously like the Federation emblem from Star Trek, has an estimated annual budget of $1.3 billion. NASA, in contrast, has a much larger budget of approximately $18.7 billion, but China’s space agency should not be underestimated due to its smaller size. Starting from the barest bones of a pre-Cold War program mostly based on older Russian designs and borrowed experience, China’s program has benefitted from a consistency of leadership and direction that NASA has simultaneously found lacking.
Whereas China’s space missions and budget are expanding and receive favor from the leadership due to the program’s immense propaganda value vis-à-vis the West, NASA has languished from budget cuts, a lack of scientific focus, and political support.
Additionally, starting from behind has in many ways been an advantage to Beijing, insofar that in trying to catch up to America, China has a definite game plan that includes not only robotic missions to the moon, but also a manned space station, a manned landing on the moon by 2030, and potentially a mission to Mars thereafter.
NASA, in contrast, has been hobbled by economic and scientific special interests, White House indifference, a polarized Congress, and the winner’s curse of wondering just what the agency should do next.
The situation has in many respects gotten so bad for NASA that in the current budget-constrained environment the agency that first sent men to the moon now seems hard-pressed to do little beyond maintaining — with much assistance from the Russians — the International Space Station, keeping aloft its fleet of Earth-observing scientific satellites, maintaining its various robotic missions throughout the solar system, and tinkering with a new heavy-lift launch system that is, theoretically, scheduled to fly sometime in 2017.
What’s more, until that new rocket system flies NASA has, with the retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2011, no independent ability to send astronauts into near Earth orbit let alone the moon and beyond.
Meanwhile, even as China rubs America’s and its seemingly hamstrung space agency’s nose in their moon rover’s success, another major rising power, India, has also entered the space race by sending an orbital mission to the red planet.
Launched few weeks before China’s lander touched down on the moon, the Indian orbiter will, if it successfully reaches Mars, make India’s space agency – which also has a logo that looks suspiciously similar to that worn by crewmembers of the starship Enterprise – only the fourth to have sent a craft to Mars after the Soviet Union, the U.S., and the European Space Agency. China, it should be noted, is noticeably absent from this list and that is probably the reason why India sent it to Mars in the first place.
Like the Chinese rover on the moon, the Indian Mars orbiter is ostensibly slated to be a scientific mission, but in reality it and the Indian program backing it is a demonstration of Indian technological mastery and growing military might.
India, like China, has laid out ambitious plans for a program of space exploration that includes the development of indigenous launch vehicles, orbital satellite nets and eventually, a manned space program. India, whose own equally impressive economic rise, technological modernization, and military buildup so often gets ignored in the West, seems intent on demonstrating that it, too, is a power to be reckoned with in space.
That space should be a prime venue for up-and-coming great powers to demonstrate their wealth and power isn’t new. After all, with such backward basket cases such as Pakistan and North Korea now having the bomb, nuclear weapons aren’t the great power showcases they used to be.
Indeed, during the Cold War the first space race pitted the U.S. and the Soviet Union against one another in a contest to demonstrate their respective space and technological mastery. The race, of course, famously culminated with the U.S. landing on a man on the moon in 1969 and sending the interplanetary, deep space Pioneer and Voyager probes to the outer planets, but the whole point of the contest seemed to be to saying that though any mere great power could blow up a city with a single bomb, only a true superpower could send their flag into the heavens.
As a means to separate out the superpower men from the great power boys, the original space race succeeded spectacularly. Once the Cold War reached its terminal phase, however, the race fizzled as budgetary constraints and thawing relations between Washington and Moscow removed much of the high-stakes drama associated with the contest.
By the time the Cold War ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, space – for both Russia, America, and America’s allies in Europe and Japan – became a distant concern even though NASA and Russia’s successor space agency, Roscosmos – another non-American space agency with an emblem Gene Roddenberry would easily recognize – continued to rack up impressive achievements.
Despite these post-Cold war successes, which included the ISS, robotic missions to Mars, and the Hubble space telescope, there was a sense that without serious geopolitical competition space exploration had fallen into a deep malaise and that the developed world’s space agencies were coasting on past achievements.
Into this gap the Chinese and Indians have eagerly stepped, but they’re not the only ones. So too have competitors from a totally unexpected area – the private sector. In fact, even as NASA seems bogged down in bureaucratic minutia and political irrelevance for the foreseeable future, entrepreneurs – particularly from the U.S. – are stepping up to the plate and are making big bets on space.
Among the most impressive of these privately-funded space ventures to date is the company built by PayPal and Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk. His company, Space X, has developed a low-cost rocket that has successfully lofted satellites into orbit, sent supply packets to the ISS, and is diligently working on a heavier-lift system that could potentially put astronauts into orbit by 2015 – a full two years before the NASA planned next-generation heavy rocket is even slated to enter service. From there, Musk plans to go further and hopes to have his company play a pivotal role in any future U.S. missions to Mars.
But Musk isn’t the only private player in outer space. A whole ecosystem of space transport, tourism, services, and exploration companies have been set up by entrepreneurs from the U.S. and the rest of the world to take advantage of what is seen as a coming boom in space travel, exploration, economic development, and, it is hoped, colonization.
The dreams of these would-be space tycoons may seem fantastical, but their collective vision is one that the U.S. government avidly supports. NASA may be wallowing in its own problems for the moment, but official policy from the White House on burgeoning private space efforts has been to let a thousand flowers bloom, especially since Americans and U.S.-based companies have tended to dominate this new industry.
So, get ready space fans. A whole new space race is about to start and it is going to be a lot more interesting than the first. It includes old champions and competitors – such as NASA and Roscosmos – but also new entrants from China, India, and the private sector. With so many more players scrambling to pin their national or corporate flag to a bit of the cosmos, it looks to be exciting in the extreme and longer lasting than the first. What’s more, the race will include not only sending people back to the moon, but possibly Mars and nearby asteroids, too. And with extrasolar planets being discovered left and right these days, who knows just how far these new contestants will boldly go?