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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Ding Ding, Round Two of the Space Race Begins

The original space race kicked off in 1957 when the USSR fired Sputnik off into orbit. Tit for tat the USSR and USA fired off various metal objects and life forms up into space culminating in 1969 with Neil Armstrong stepping out onto the Moon’s surface. In the late 60’s China came along and fired a couple of rockets up into orbit then didn’t do much else.

In the 70’s, Skylab, the first “space station”, was put into orbit by NASA, and in ’86 construction of Mir space station began. From here the world’s interest in space seemed to dwindle and slip into the background of other global events.

Till recently space programs around the world have languished. From 1985 – 2003 space exploration and the related technologies stagnated. Space travel, once the dream and hope of humanity, seemed to have slipped off the radar. Even in 1993 when plans for an International Space Station sprouted into fruition and the first crew boarded in 2000, the area was sadly neglected in the public sphere.

In 2003 the Chinese shot Shenzhou 5 with Yang Liwei on board into orbit, breathing life once again into space exploration, and arguably starting off the second round the space race with China becoming the third nation to achieve manned spaceflight.

Since 2003 many other players have breathed life into the area of space exploration. India was one of the first countries to develop a space program, but it has only just developed in the past 10 years. India now plans to send a satellite to orbit the moon and Japan currently has a satellite orbiting the moon. NASA has plans to start construction of a moon base by 2020, while China has stated a date of 2024 as their first moon landing and to have sent taikonauts to Mars by 2060. Once again there is a vision and a coherent plan.

Recent focus on space programs has centered on the possible use of space for war. In early 2007 China shot down one of their own old satellites. Late last month the USA shot down a satellite. Once again we see the tit-for-tat pattern of the original space race, the only thing that has changed is China has replaced the USSR and the intent of the programs has taken a more of a tactical nature.

At the same time we have seen a parallel development of public access to space. Dennis Tito was the first paying tourist to orbit the earth in 2001, which has led to the establishment of the Ansari X Prize. This prize was claimed in 2004 by Tier One who had to send a craft into orbit twice within a week. Four years later we have Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s pet space tourism project. Many celebrities including William Shatner, Moby and Stephen Hawking are booked to fly with VG.

So onward we march. Forward into the heavens seems to be the direction that humanity is headed. NASA, China and Russia are planning manned missions to the moon, and eventually Mars. We have sent probes deeper into our solar system to Titan, and we are now on the look out for sister planets in neighbouring star systems.

As the human population keeps expanding, and we keep frittering away our finite resources, the Moon, Mars and any other celestial bodies that will have us, start to look more and more attractive. The Moon supposedly has vast amounts of Helium-3 for us to pillage and use for nuclear fusion. Mars holds a possibly terraformable atmosphere and conditions that are a definite possibility for human colonisation.

What we need to weigh up in this battle of the heavens are the benefits of competition in this area. Each year over 30 billion US dollars are channelled from governments into national space agencies. We have countries working against each other to gain tactical advantages, and possible economic advantages in the future. The first space race was characterised by ardent nationalism and the revered position held by the space programs. Friendly competition in space research has given way to barely disguised hostility. If there is anyway for this new era to burgeon and become fruitful, it is through co-operation, openness and the mutual dissemination of knowledge.

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The editor of this fine rag for 2009.

Comments (1)

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  1. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    I think this second round of the ‘space race’ is not much more than a fizzle, to be honest. Oh, i’m sure we will return to the Moon in due course as per the current plans, but the sheer magnitude of the ideological race that went on in the 60’s is simply beyond reckoning by today’s standards.

    ‘Apollo’ was a window of opportunity in that regard – a brief period of intense investment in the respective national space programs of the US and the Soviets due to the political need to play a technological trump card against the other. Whilst the romance of the venture was extremely popular, the reasoning behind it served a solid political desire – the re-establishment of international American pre-eminence and prestige. Once that need was met, the window of opportunity snapped shut again – hence why we have wallowed in our low earth orbit prison ever since.

    Cool topic though – if you’re keen to discuss it more let me know. Not only am I a geek on all things space, but i’m also writing my Honours thesis on space politics during the Kennedy Administration. Pretty fascinating stuff!

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