Welcome to the second space race

This second space race, like our world today, is more complex and multifaceted than the first. It is driven by many factors and many, many more players

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, ground crew check on the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou 11 spacecraft after it landed in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. A pair of Chinese astronauts returned Friday from a monthlong stay aboard the country's space station, China's sixth and longest crewed mission and a sign of the growing ambitions of its rapidly advancing space program. (Li Gang/Xinhua via AP)
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We are living in the second great age of space exploration.

The first was born from the ashes of the Second World War and was fuelled by the fight for supremacy between capitalism and communism, the defining struggle of the last century.

It ended with American footprints on the Moon and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, unable to keep up the pace, both economically and technologically.

This second space race, like our world today, is more complex and multifaceted than the first. It is driven by many factors and many, many more players.

Some are familiar faces. Nasa, the United States government agency behind both the Apollo Moon missions and the space shuttle, still explores our solar system, but its budget is a fraction of the glory days of the 1960s and it is currently unable to send a human into orbit.

Russia retains its ageing Soyuz rockets as a kind of flying taxi service to the International Space Station, due to celebrate its 30th birthday next year. Its grander visions of rockets carrying the red star to other worlds decay and rust in corners of the cosmodromes in far-flung former satellite states of the USSR.

Other nations still see space exploration as an expression of national pride and ambition.

China, the world’s second largest economic power, entered the age of manned space flight in 2003 with its Shenzhou programme. China expects to begin the construction of its first space station next year and talks of putting men (and women) on the Moon within 15 years.

India also uses space technology to demonstrate its rising influence. While the world’s seventh largest economic power has not yet committed itself to manned space flight, its rockets have lifted dozens of satellites into orbit, creating a commercial space programme worth tens of millions of dollars.

It would be fair to say that the space ambitions of China and India have not greatly seized the imagination of the world beyond those two countries. Yet there is a palpable sense of excitement about space and its potential once more.

When Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the Moon in July 1969, the United Arab Emirates existed only as a vision of its founders, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed.

Forty six years later, the UAE is planning to become the first Muslim nation to send a mission to Mars, placing a research satellite in orbit around the Red Planet.

The orbiting spacecraft has been named Hope, or Al Amal in Arabic, and it is intended to reach Mars in 2021, the 50th anniversary of the UAE.

Hope is an appropriate name, representing both the spirit of space exploration and the country’s optimism for the future. The announcement of the UAE’s Mission to Mars made headlines around the world, as did the announcement in February by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, that the UAE was proposing to build a city on Mars by 2117.

It was not that the source of these announcements was unexpected or that the ambitions were seen as improbable. Rather, the home of the world’s tallest building and a country that has opened its arms to the potential of everything from 1,000-km/h hyperloop trains to 3-D printed buildings and passenger taxi drones is where most people would expect to find the future.

This openness to ideas and technologies - no matter how seemingly far-fetched - is what characterises the new space age. Increasingly its successes come from private capital, either operating alone or in partnership with governments, hard-pressed to convince their taxpayers and voters that venturing beyond our world is better than solving the problems they face on it.

Not that the government sector has not enjoyed its share of the glamour. The world celebrated the European Space Agency’s successful Rosetta mission when it placed the lander Philae on the surface of a comet in November 2014.

The cheers were even louder when Nasa successfully woke up its New Horizons spacecraft after an eight-year and 4.8-billion-kilometre journey to Pluto. Meanwhile, Cassini-Huygens, another unmanned probe that is a collaboration between Nasa, the ESA and the Italian Space Agency, will end its 20-year grand tour of our solar system with a controlled crash into Saturn in September.

Mankind remains in low Earth orbit, though. The colonisation of Mars is a tantalising prospect, even if the date for mankind’s first steps on the Red Planet seem a movable feast.

It is the Moon that seems closer on the horizon. The Lunar XPRIZE, sponsored by Google, offers US$20 million for the first successful privately-funded landing on the Moon, using an unmanned rover that must travel 500 metres and broadcast high-quality images. The four remaining teams must blast off by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, US space policy vacillates with regime change and the fortunes of the economy. President Barack Obama abandoned a pledge by George W Bush to return to the Moon by 2020, to concentrate on the Orion spacecraft, essentially a bigger version of the Apollo capsule that will allow the US to send its first astronauts into space since the ending of the shuttle programme in around 2023.

Under the Trump administration, the policy as outlined by vice president Mike Pence last month is now to send US astronauts back to the Moon and, in his words: “Boots on the surface of Mars.” The specifics of both missions, though, remain unclear.

What both President Trump and President Obama have recognised is that the exploration of space is now better achieved in partnership with the private sector. Boeing and Lockheed Martin together form the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which offers three launch vehicles and is currently working on Vulcan, a heavy rocket expected to make its first flight in 2017.

Boeing and the ULA are also working on the Space Launch System, a heavy lift rocket intended to replace the space shuttle for manned flight and with a capability of carrying spacecraft with the potential to reach the Moon and even Mars. Boeing is also developing the CST-100 Starliner, a crewed capsule designed to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station and which is scheduled to launch for the first time in 2018.

Where the public imagination has been truly captured though, is when private enterprise declares its own objectives in space. These are the new lords of the universe, or at least the solar system, with ambitions as vast as their fortunes and quite possibly their egos.

The most visible is Elon Musk, best known for the Tesla range of electric cars but who has also created a thriving commercial rocket business called SpaceX.

Musk’s ambitions go much deeper into space. He claims to be ready to send two private citizens round the Moon next year in his (untested) Dragon 2 capsule. Beyond that he speaks of missions to Mars in 10 years, using another (untested and indeed unbuilt) spaceship he has called the Heart of Gold in tribute to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Other high-profile names include Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic suborbital space plane has been delayed after the prototype crashed in 2014, along with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Horizon is in competition with SpaceX and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who is supporting Breakthrough Starshot, an ambitious programme to send tiny “nano-spaceships” to distant star systems using light-beam propulsion.

Add in Microsoft’s Paul Allen, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google and you have a who’s who of capitalism in the information age.

These are men unused to failure, even with stakes this high. Can they succeed? At least this new space race is not for the domination of competing ideologies but a quest for knowledge. And in this race, we can all be winners.