Where is the international space race headed? Are regional space races likely?
As early as the 1930’s Russians began activities that would lay the foundation for the pre-modern space era: building the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the first orbiting satellite Sputnik, first animal in space, and first human in Earth orbit, all in the 1950’s-60’s. After WWII Russia and the United States each benefited from the help of captured German scientists responsible for building Germany’s wartime rocket program. German engineers provided the spark both Russia and the US needed to usher in the modern space age which ran from the late 1950’s and ended with the construction of the International Space Station and termination of the US Space Shuttle Program in 2011. During the last several decades China, India, Iran, Israel, Japan and North Korea, among others, have entered the space race and made significant contributions.
We are at a watershed in space exploration where the size and scope of space missions has become so ambitious and expensive that countries can no longer “go it alone”. The International Space Station (ISS) cost $150 billion and required the resources and efforts of 75 countries.
Many of the technologies that have led to recent success in space exploration are beginning to look dated. Leaders in space exploration are focusing on the following:
- making long-distance (ie: Mars and beyond) space travel possible
- building orbiting depots to refuel rockets in space
- creation of life support systems that could operate indefinitely without resupply from earth
- advanced propulsion systems that would allow spaceships to reach Mars in weeks rather than months. See antimatter spaceship below
- creating a moon colony as a precursor to building a Mars colony
- deploying huge Hubble like telescopes so we can learn more about the universe
- attempting to land on an asteroid and destroy or deflect it from its path
Of course countries will continue to compete with one another to exploit all that can be gleaned from satellites and space stations launched into Earth orbit and it could be argued that this technology is in its infancy too. Near Earth exploration will be a kind of Olympic Games in space in the future with gold silver and bronze medals awarded to those countries that are most innovative and successful: this is something to be excited about rather than dreaded although there may be times when misunderstandings occur and saber rattling surfaces. Countries that most successfully explore and experiment in near Earth orbit or on trips to the moon will see economic benefits proportional to their ingenuity and commitment.
In the end near or earth and moon missions are likely to become more expensive as the technology advances and so rather than an Asian space race we are likely to see more cooperation between Asian space programs over time.
Finally, as space exploration is privatized we are less likely to see competition between nation states. Private companies will come to the fore as the main forces advancing space exploration and the most innovative will be rewarded.