Fifty years ago, two Cold War titans pitted their brightest scientists, most innovative engineers, and bravest explorers against each other as they competed for technological and social dominance. The Space Race was a scientific tour de force, the accomplishments of which brought man to the moon, made Sputnik and Apollo household names and produced a great deal of modern technology.
There is still competition between the U.S. and rising powers, including China and India. However, unlike the Cold War, which was a battle of opposing political philosophies, here we see competition primarily over economic and strategic opportunity.
We are in the midst of a new Space Race. But now nations must compete against–and collaborate with–privately owned aerospace companies. NASA’s budget cuts, along with the rapidly growing need for satellites (more than 60 countries currently operate at least one satellite and an estimated 16,000 new satellites are planned for launch in the next decade), have lowered the barriers for non-governmental agencies to participate in space activities.
The most prominent company in the race is SpaceX, whose Falcon Heavy rocket was launched in February. It is perhaps one of the most memorable launches of the 21st century, not only because it is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, but because it launched a cherry-red Tesla Roadster into the solar system, blasting David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” as it endlessly orbits the sun.
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has greater plans for his rockets. He plans to send the first human to Mars by 2024, and eventually colonize the red planet. Other companies have different plans in mind. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is working to build reusable, single-stage rockets, while Richard Branson’s company Virgin Galactic aims to provide sub-orbital launches for space tourists.
As space-related capabilities continue to advance, economic opportunities will further stimulate competition in space. Tickets for human flights into lower earth orbit have already sold for $250,000 each. Access to resource-rich asteroids will provide critical materials for developing colonies and outposts on the Moon, Mars, and other strategically advantageous locations.
This technological renaissance will greatly benefit the human quest for knowledge and help bring astronomers’ fantastical dreams into fruition. However, with these benefits come deeply concerning costs.
The growth and diversification of space activities and the influx of new agencies has the potential to exacerbate many of the current challenges to the long-term sustainable use of space, including: on-orbit crowding, radio-frequency interference, the proliferation of space debris and the chances of an incident in space sparking or escalating geopolitical tensions and conflict on Earth.
Along with sustainability issues, this growth may cause detrimental economic imbalances. With single asteroids possessing enough rare earth minerals to collapse the global economy, whoever controls the resources will have significant influence.
If the government is prepared to participate in a collaboration with such private companies, certain dramatic legislation must be put in place–and soon. As SpaceX and Blue Origin gain more investors and public interest, it will not be long before the entire country is affected by the scientific, cultural, and economic upheaval that is the second space race.