The Global Race to Space

 Sintia Radu

IN 1957, THE SOVIET Union launched Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite, into space. Their success prompted the United States to establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a year later and, soon after, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the surface.

Sixty years after NASA was formed, countries around the world have joined the space race, with an eye to putting a person on Mars. But experts say the future of space activity may rest with private corporations that are building their own products, launching commercial satellites and even exploring small missions.

In spite of interplanetary probes like New Horizons, which have reached past Pluto, and successful robotic explorations of Mars, some scientists say progress isn't coming quickly enough.

"All the Mars missions that are currently going on, the landers and the satellites, have been spectacularly successful, but they are with robotic missions without human involvement," says Michael Mendillo, professor of astronomy at the Boston University Center for Space Physics. "(And that's) a loss to humanity so far. We should have landed on Mars by now, with humans,"

His view is not shared by the vast majority of space scientists, Mendillo adds, explaining that any mission that involves people is enormously costly and requires plenty of preparation and control to protect the crew on board.

Which may be why, instead of landing people on other planets, the bulk of modern space activity involves commercial initiatives carried out by private companies. There are currently 1,800 satellites orbiting the Earth and more than 800 have a commercial purpose such as communications, observation, or technology development. Many are launched by private companies or in partnership with entities such as Elon Musk's SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, or Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, as well as smaller independent companies.

This activity is so intense that experts now talk about the U.S. being on the "cusp of having an independent commercial space market," no longer controlled by the government. In this context, "NASA's role is evolving as commercial entities start to take over more of the low Earth orbit domain," says Tom Walkinshaw, a Scottish entrepreneur and CEO of Alba Orbital, a company building small satellites.

Private Actors in Space

Technological advancements allow any company with enough capital to create their own satellites and compete against NASA, say experts. Therefore In the future, we'll see more and more such initiatives, and satellites will only get smaller to the point that anyone could build their own.

"After initiatives like SpaceX, people started seeing that it's not just the government who can do things, and it doesn't have to be just the Chinese or the Russians," says Dumitru Popescu, founder of ARCA Space Corporation based in New Mexico, who looked into building rockets since the beginning of the 2000s. "This technology that NASA had in the 1960s and 1970s, that seemed untouchable because of the costs and the difficulty in using it is now almost mundane."

At the same time, such technology being available to private companies means NASA itself can get help and outsource operations that can now be carried by privates.

"They're buying more products and services rather than doing them themselves and that allows them to do more exploration beyond low Earth orbit," Walkinshaw says.

Yet private companies are also looking into going beyond Earth's orbit, and already are successfully launched rockets. If this moves forward, experts warn NASA will need to up its game to keep its relevance.

"NASA's objective is to explore space, but, for instance, if SpaceX or Blue Origin also want to explore space, when these companies come and say that they would send spaceships on Mars in the next decade and NASA says they will do the same in two decades, you start asking why you pay NASA, considering the private sector moves faster," Popescu says.

This won't easily happen, Popescu adds, as the costs of sending a spaceship to another planet are extremely high and, unlike government agencies, private companies need to see a return on their investment. "Government agencies can afford to send people on other planets just because they want to and if there is a political motivation to do that. With private companies it's like 'OK, how am I going to make up for the cost?'"

In the meantime, NASA's plans of exploring other planets are advancing and so are other countries. While NASA has a rover to Mars scheduled to launch in 2022 and instructions for an "eventual mission" from President Trump himself, other countries – be it America's old rivals or newcomers – are now saying their ambitions must reach other planets as well. China wants to reach Mars by 2020 and also send probes to Jupiter and its moons, striving to become a "major space power" by 2030. The European Space Agency will be sending a robot to search for life on Mars in 2022; the United Arab Emirates want to build a mini-city on Mars and aim at sending a spacecraft into Mars' orbit by 2021, while Russia, U.S.' main competitor, plans to launch a mission to Mars in 2019.

India's prime minister recently announced the country plans to have the first manned mission into space by 2022 as part of the country's low cost space program. Nigeria, which launched its first nanosatellite last year, touts one of the biggest space programs in Africa and has plans to send the first astronaut into space by 2030.

"(Space exploration) might be done for political reasons as many people said (then-President John) Kennedy's decision was to beat the Soviet Union, but I think it's good for human exploration," Mendillo says.

Space activity seems to be going even further into the realm of the political, with Vice President Mike Pence announcing this month that a "space force" will be established in the next two years. The proposal revives an earlier era, when more than 35 years ago and during the Cold War then-President Reagan called for passing the Strategic Defense Initiative, a network of ground-and-space-based systems to shield the U.S. from a nuclear missile attack. The plan, nicknamed "Star Wars" because of its space component, eventually lost political support as the Soviet Union collapsed.

There might be a need for such programs as space is yet another battlefield, say experts, inspiring other countries to follow with similar plans. Yet Star Wars is still not something we'll be experiencing soon, "like fights in space and laser weapons on spaceships," Popescu says. "These things cost a lot and you need a serious motivation for it."

In the end and with technology becoming so accessible, we might see a change in leadership in space exploration, say experts, but also more international collaboration, as high costs force nations to always consider working together rather than on their own.

"But if the next Americans to land on the moon find colleagues from other countries there I think that's wonderful," Mendillo says. "And if they get there and find that the Americans have a base, that's equally wonderful."

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