Fifty years ago the starting pistol fired with the launch of Sputnik, and the space race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was on. The contest was less like a race, however, than it was an extraplanetary game of Risk, with each side seeking to attain dominance over some portion of Earth’s neighborhood. Notwithstanding the high-minded rhetoric about humanity expanding out among the stars, the leadership of the two countries had more immediate military motivations to develop better technology for hurling ICBMs and spying from orbit—and denying the other side an equivalent advantage.
Then, after the Apollo program succeeded in putting people on the moon, the political leadership failed to embrace inspiring new goals and the international competition collapsed from a lack of momentum. NASA not only withdrew from its greatest achievements but scuttled the spacecraft that enabled them. Unbelievable as it seems to those of us who watched Neil Armstrong in the Sea of Tranquility, no one under the age of 35 in 2007 can remember humans standing on another world.
For many space science enthusiasts, that situation is not even remotely troubling. The past decade and a half have been a golden era of discovery thanks to the Hubble, COBE and other space-based telescopes, as wells as robotic probes to Mars and the outer planets. Unmanned ventures have stumbled—witness the loss of the Mars Observer and Mars Polar Lander missions—but never to a degree rivaling the tragedies that darkened the space shuttle program or the fiascoes that have dogged the International Space Station. And the scientific return on investment has been incalculably greater. But it must be acknowledged that even the inspiring Mars rovers cannot quicken the pulse as Apollo did.
Recently space programs have suffered serious blows. As this issue goes to press, NASA is dealing with allegations that some astronauts were drunk at launch. Three workers for the California-based spacecraft maker Scaled Composites were killed in an explosion. Meanwhile RKK Energia, a principal manufacturer of Russian spacecraft, is flirting with bankruptcy. Terrible as these setbacks are, however, they do not eliminate the fundamental appeal of exploration.
Today’s space race is far more complicated than the earlier one. Now the U.S. vies not only with Russia but also with the European Space Agency, China and other rising powers. Private enterprises such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are staking their own claims on chunks of the emerging space industry. All these space racers have set themselves somewhat different goals, from the wildly ambitious (voyaging to Mars or establishing a permanent base on the moon) to the straightforwardly commercial (cornering the satellite launch market or operating the first transatmospheric tour bus).
Space is big; there is room for all. Diverse spacefarers can complement and cooperate more successfully than they can stymie one another. Companies can and should take on ambitious ventures beyond Earth, but there are also worthwhile undertakings that only governments have the wherewithal to do in the near term, and they will lay the groundwork for more profitable projects down the line. And no matter whether colonization of space is a pipe dream or the manifest destiny of our species, we should not be so stingy as to play science and human exploration against each other. Let each prove its merits. The special report on “The Future of Space Exploration,” beginning on page 60, offers suggestions about what may be some of the worthiest goals to set next.
What we are starting to do in space is still not exactly a race, but it is also no longer just a grab for territory and bragging rights, either. It is more like the very earliest stages in settling a frontier: claiming turf but then also extending the reach of society, commerce and personal interests to it, however tentatively. It can be a gritty, unglamorous project. Romantic visions of settling the old West have little relevance; the space frontier will be like nothing humanity has ever experienced. And to the extent that it is a race, it is one we all can win.
This article was originally published with the title Racing past the Moon.