The first space race began about 60 years ago as the big superpower countries of the US and Russia aimed to initially get humanity into space and then to plant a flag on the moon. Since then the interest in space exploration and space travel, although garnering a news spot on occasion, has dramatically decreased. That is until very recently, namely with SpaceX and Elon Musk’s personal Tesla being sent into orbit around the Sun via the Falcon Heavy rocket. Though there is controversy around sending what could be seen as advertising into space, the most important part of the Falcon Heavy project is the twin synchronised landing, a grand display to the world, the future of reusable launch vehicles.
It has been this middle stage of figuring out how to continue space exploration without the enormous cost involved that grounded the old space race to a halt. Robots have been doing the exploring and investigating in our stead. Mars already has a population, it’s just completely made up of robots wandering its surface! But the heavyweights in space travel is no longer opposing countries anymore, the newest space race will be between companies.
Elon Musk is not the only rich person funding space travel. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon has another company, Blue Origin with aims of having a lunar base and continual robotic exploration. Their rocket New Shepard is another reusable rocket that they plan to have carrying human passengers in the very near future. A dummy flight with the aptly named ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ has already been launched. Another company vying for the cosmos is Virgin Galactic, a part of the Virgin Group backed by Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic is particularly interested in the potential of space tourism and commercial flights. Research has shown that visiting space and experiencing zero gravity is desire of the majority of the US, Canada and Japan. Space tourism has already begun however. In 2001, Dennis Tito paid $20 million to go to the International Space Station (ISS). The following year Mark Shuttleworth, a South African businessman became the second space tourist. Space tourism is one way in which businesses are pushing for interest in space travel, and with the latest technology of reusable rockets, this is becoming a greater possibility.
Alongside these heavyweight space companies is a proportion of smaller startup groups. The X-Prize is a non for profit organisation that creates challenges and prizes to encourage technological development for the benefit of humanity. One such prize is the Google Lunar challenge. The rules of the competition is that groups must send a robot to the moon, have it travel at least 500m and it must be able to transmit HD video and images back to Earth. First prize for achieving this is $20 million. There are also a number of side projects and achievements that have million dollar prizes. Companies from across the world, including India, Japan and Israel are competing against each other in this literal race into space.
A lunar base appears to be the next big step in space exploration. The problem with leaving Earth is our atmosphere and the friction and restrictions it creates. Once in the vacuum of space, these interferences disappear leaving only cosmic radiation, asteroids and gravity as our main enemies in traversing space. If humans were to have a base on the moon it would be our first service station in space. This could then be the breakthrough to reaching asteroids and mining them for the resources they provide in astronomical numbers that we don’t have on Earth. These asteroids could then become further bases, stations at which long distance space vehicles could dock and refuel. These bases could then aid in the effort of proper colonisation of Mars transporting people and resources around the solar system.
But it appears the main goal at the moment is to get humans to Mars and then to colonise Mars. War of the Worlds, the 1887 novel from H.G. Wells implicated the arrival of Martian’s on Earth, not simply to invade and kill everyone but with the intent to remove the population in order to make Earth like Mars, a second home. Now humans have the goal to go to Mars and convert it into a second Earth, a process known as terraforming. This would involve serious reconstruction of Mars, attempting to heat up the planet, melt the icecaps and so on. But the largest problem with terraforming Mars is that it does not have the magnetosphere that Earth has, the protective layer that stops radiation from solar flares and the like from hitting Earth. On Mars we wouldn’t be protected from this. There is also the issue that it needs to be confirmed that there is nothing on Mars that could be harmed by humans before plans to visit it, as a part of the planetary protection.
So for the time being the goal is to reach Mars, to form a base on it and to see what potential lays there. Andy Weir’s book and the subsequent film The Martian (2015) held legitimate science in a small habitation on Mars. Doctor Who has also frequented the moon on multiple occasions, but always with a small group of scientists. But the real quest is to make a humans an inter-planet species. Carl Sagan spoke up about the subject saying:
“We live in the middle of a shooting gallery with thousands of asteroids in our path that we haven’t even discovered yet. So, let’s be at least a two-planet species, as a backup plan.”
To be a two planet species however, we need more than just a handful of scientists and engineers, it needs to be a proper population.
So, in this new space race of the 21st century, will we the goal be a base on Mars, or a little closer to home on the moon? Who will be the main contenders in this race? Is human colonisation a real possibility and how will our involvement impact our own planet, other planets and the future of space exploration?
In summarising all of this, in my personal research project I hope to narrow down and focus upon a particular aspect in the future of humans in space, how this will be achieved and consequences involved. The end product I’m still unsure about, however some sort of visual presentation or podcast I believe would be a way to present my research in an intriguing and engaging way.
Field M, Mills E, Murphy M 2018, ‘The new space race: how Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson brought space travel back to the brink and plan to send us to Mars’, 07 February, <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2018/02/07/new-space-race-elon-musk-jeff-bezos-richard-branson-brought/>.
Freeman, O 2015, ‘Future of Spaceflight’, National Geographic, <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/space-exploration/future-spaceflight/>.
The Economist Group 2018, ‘The New Space Race’, The Economist, <https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21735023-events-space-reflect-those-back-home-new-space-race>.
Worrall, S 2018, ‘There’s Only One Way For Humanity to Survive. Go To Mars’, National Geographic, 03 March, <https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/there-s-only-one-way-for-humanity-to-survive–go-to-mars-/>.
Martand J 2017, ‘A New Space Race?’, The National Interest, 26 December, <http://nationalinterest.org/feature/new-space-race-23810>.