In 1957, Russia sent Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into space. America’s response was a promise to send a man to the moon. It was the then President Kennedy who made this risky claim, but it was met in 1969 when, on 20th July, Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle lunar module on the Moon.
Eventually the Cold War ended, and the USA and USSR decided to work together. Since then, although space exploration has continued remotely, the race for physical discovery in Outer Space appears to have subsided. Or has it? In recent weeks, a film celebrating the life of Buzz Aldrin, First Man, hit the big screen. Its reflection on an original ‘Man on the Moon’ comes as a new space race is gathering pace. Rather than government bodies such as NASA running the race however, it is the billionaires of America who have their hands on the controls.
The Falcon Heavy car, made by one such billionaire Elon Musk’s (above, right) Tesla company, was produced so that he could start exploring the possibility of carrying tourists on “slingshot” trips around the moon. As The Economist reports, ‘Mr Musk’s ambition is to propel humanity beyond its home planet…. In the days of the space race between America and the Soviet Union, the heavens were a front in the cold war between two competing ideologies. Since then, power has not merely shifted between countries. It has also shifted between governments and individuals.’ For his part, when speaking to The Guardian, Musk underlined the assertion with enthusiasm: “We want a new space race,” he said, “Races are exciting.”
Musk is not the only one to have taken over from space agencies like NASA and their main contractors, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos beat Musk to landing a reusable rocket through his own company, Blue Origin, and the UK billionaire Richard Branson and a slew of other entrepreneurs have followed with lighter-lift rockets.
Phil Larson, a senior science adviser in Barack Obama’s White House and a former SpaceX official, explains, “There are many new rockets being developed, some light, some super-heavy, some in between.” There are some inevitable concerns. NASA has strict safety requirements for human spaceflight, but there are fears the new breed of explorers won’t always adhere to them in their race to be the first to reach the next popular goal.
NASA is preparing for a return of American astronauts to the moon, and last year China deemed an expanse of desert in the country’s north-west to be sufficiently Martian to be reserved as a training ground for Mars-bound “taikonauts”. China is not working alone in this, though. For the first time, Pakistan appears to be entering a space race, this time with rivals India. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has said that, “Pakistan will send a human to space for the first time in 2022, with China’s help.”
Meanwhile, India is promoting itself as a low-cost provider of rocket launch services for overseas satellite projects. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is no stranger to space exploration. The ISRO has already sent remote exploratory missions to Mars and intends to be the first to reach the Moon’s south pole in 2019. They also plan, in 2022, to send a crew of three astronauts on a seven-day orbit of Earth. As The Economist reports, “If the mission is successful, India will become only the fourth country in the world to independently develop a manned space flight, following in the footsteps of the former Soviet Union, US and China.”
While the race to reach the Moon has already been won, there is much still to learn. Mars features high on the wish list of the space explorers of the modern age. But who’ll win the next race? The established space agencies or a rich billionaire who has always dreamt of walking amongst the stars?
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.