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The New Space Race: Complicating the Rush to the Stars

News & Features | November 25, 2013

The space race is on again, but the rules have changed and the new competition looks nothing like the old. Several countries have sacrificed national treasures to explore and exploit the daunting void for commercial and military purposes, and what was once a race between the United States and the Soviet Union has blossomed into a more global free-for-all.

On November 5, India launched a spacecraft into Earth’s orbit bound for Mars in an attempt to be the first country in Asia to reach the Red Planet. Named “Mangalyaan,” the probe will endure a hazardous 300-day journey . The United States, Russia, and the European Space Agency all took at least two attempts to reach Mars successfully, and India hopes to beat this record. Two years ago, China also launched an unmanned mission to Mars (on a Russian rocket), but the mission failed. China has vowed to try again, but another attempt is not likely for several years.

China’s most recent mission launched a probe on June 18 which was to dock with an orbiting space station once in space. Once docked, the astronauts aboard conducted medical and scientific experiments at China’s experimental space laboratory, Tiangong. According to an article from the German newspaper Deutsche Welle, “Tiangong” means “heavenly place” and “is illustrative of the political ambitions China has in order to pursue its aims in space.” A decade ago, China became the third nation to launch a manned spacecraft; it has also worked on a lunar rover and a space station. Indian space officials hope that a successful mission to Mars will compete with these achievements and greatly boost national pride.

To the nations competing, there seems no better way to demonstrate dominance than by launching high-profile space ventures. In space, a new kind of competitive landscape has emerged. The absence of political and economic limitations, the absence of the perception of time and, of course, the absence of gravity have created a domain of infinite possibilities. But are we truly in the age of a new “Space Race”?

The period that historians have deemed the “Space Race” lasted roughly from 1957 until 1975 and was more an informal competition between the USSR and the US. In other words, it was an extension of the Cold War above the clouds. In July 1955, the United States announced its plans to build the first manmade satellite. One month after this information was released, Russia announced similar plans. Two years later, the first official launches into space begin. On October 4th, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik 1, an artificial satellite to orbit around the Earth. Just a few months later, the United States sent out Explorer 1, their first venture into space. A constant battle for the next two decades saw the launch of crafts such as Russia’s Luna 1, America’s Able 1 and countless others. One of the most notable was Apollo 11,the craft that allowed American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to be the first humans to walk on the moon.

Many of these ventures were marked not only by an interest in being the first to accomplish them, but also an interest in the militarization of space. Among the spacecraft were satellites intended to spy on the opposing military organizations, anti-satellite weaponry to end the spying, a consideration by the US to drop an atomic bomb on the moon to demonstrate their supremacy over the USSR and a Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) sent into lower Earth orbit to attack specified areas of North America. The end of the Cold War brought an end to this intergalactic struggle between the USSR and the US, and although they both had strong space programs, new powers emerged amongst the rubble of the Berlin Wall such as China, Japan, and India.

A “Modern Space Race” is not quite the most appropriate title for our relationship with space today—the issue is far more complicated. First, it is no longer a race in the formal sense of the term, but rather an age of exploration amongst competitors. While it is true that India’s Mangalyaan rocket was launched in order for them to be the first Asian country to reach Mars, there is not as clearly established a competition as there was during the Cold War.

Brendan Fleig-Goldstein, a junior who co-teaches a first year Explorations class at Tufts called “Robots, Space, and Civilizations of the Future” referred to a key trend in space advancements today: the movement towards private enterprises.

“There is definitely a transition towards more private enterprises in space,” Fleig-Goldstein says.

A prime example is the rise of private companies and their “space tourism” ventures. Various start-up companies have begun to emerge in recent years to leisurely explore the vast universe that exists around us, Virgin Galactic among them. On their site, the company boasts, “Your journey to space starts here” and in the section for booking a tourist flight to space, states, “This is your first step to becoming an astronaut!” To the tune of $250,000 per seat, that is. Says Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group, “The vehicles will allow an out-of-the-seat, zero-gravity experience with astounding views of the planet from the black sky of space for tourist astronauts and a unique microgravity platform for researchers.” With the elite club of astronomers that the company creates along with partners such as NBC (which broadcasted their first tourist trip in 2013), Virgin Galactic seems to have little standing in the way of its success as a space tourism company.

Other private space companies in the US include SpaceX, created by Elon Musk in 2002, which works with NASA and the US government. After creating X.com and PayPal, Musk decided to try his hand at space exploration, and through Space X he began developing and manufacturing space launch vehicles in order to advance rocket technology. In 2008, NASA awarded $1.6 billion to SpaceX for more rocket and space research, with the eventual goal of sending humans to live on other planets. NASA eventually signed a contract with SpaceX to use their space technology to send cargo to the International Space Station, and in May of 2012, one of SpaceX’s vehicles, Dragon, made SpaceX the first commercial company to successfully send a vehicle to the International Space Station. When asked about space exploration, Musk responded, “An asteroid or a super volcano could destroy us, and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: An engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us. Humankind evolved over millions of years, but over the last 60 years, atomic weaponry created the potential to extinguish ourselves. Sooner or later we must expand life beyond this blue and green ball, or go extinct.”

While there is no formal “Space Race,” the most prevalent space competition appears to be amongst the Asian countries. Many astronomers believe that, although they have not achieved the same level of space exploration as the US or the USSR, the main players in the Asian space stage (India, China, and Japan) will eventually lead the world in technological space advancements. Though K Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, has commented, “We are not in a race with anybody, but I would say we are in a race with ourselves. We need to excel, we need to improve, and we need to bring new services,” pundits argue that a race is on. Along with the recent Mangalyaan mission, India has plans to send out even more space missions, with a plan for independent human spaceflight by 2015. China and India, like the United States, are considering more engagement with commercial space companies in the near future, and Japan talks of independent manned spaceflights by 2020.

Although these advances may help future generations, some critics find it mystifying that India can spend 72 million dollars on their most recent space craft to Mars but neglect the fact that the nation is estimated to have a third of the world’s poor, with approximately 22 percent of the population live below the poverty line. In effect, how can these Asian countries with serious economic and political inequalities focus not on internal reform, but rather on places where not yet inhabited by humans?

Others, such as Nisha Agrawal, chief executive of Oxfam in India, defend India’s space advancements as a beneficial aspect of the country’s prosperity. Agrawal states, “India is home to poor people, but it’s also an emerging economy. It’s a middle-income country […] What is hard for people to get their head around is that we are home to poverty, but also a global power. We are not really one country, but two in one. And we need to do both things: contribute to global knowledge as well as take care of poor people at home.”

Thinking far off into the future, though, is space colonization truly a plausible option? Will we ever get to “live it up” like Spock and James T. Kirk in Star Trek or even the always-entertaining Zenon in Disney’s affectionately titled Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century?

In any futurists’ view and in any space enthusiasts’ view, the “middle stages of space colonization is mostly going to be orbiting colonies in space,” states Fleig-Goldman, and a major influence would be L-5 orbit. Gerard O’Neil, an American space colonist and physicist, established a few seminal ideas for the concept of space colonization, which were later used and expanded upon by Carolyn and Keith Henson, to create the “L4 Society.” The Society uses the model of space colonization habitats that O’Neil had envisioned in conjunction with the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points in the Earth-Moon system. Objects placed at these points achieve stable gravitational equilibrium, meaning that, if one of O’Neil’s proposed space colonies is placed at those points, it will not need to expend any energy and can remain orbiting at the L4 and L5 points without any termination. This is one of the closest conceptions we have of attainable and sustainable human space colonization.

In sum, what we see is a confluence of space exploration, leading to a different kind of space race. India and China will still vie for dominance, the United States and Russia will continue their advancements, and Europe will attempt to hold their own.