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‘We’re in a new era’: the 21st-century space race takes off

‘We’re in a new era’: the 21st-century space race takes off

If the 20th-century space race was about political power, this century’s will be about money. But for those who dream of sending humans back to the moon and possibly Mars, it’s an exciting time to be alive whether it’s presidents or billionaires paying the fare.

Space flight is having a renaissance moment, bringing a fresh energy not seen since the days of the Apollo programme and, for the first time, with private companies rather than governments leading the charge.

A series of recent milestone missions, not least the increasingly successful test flights of the largest rocket ever made and the first privately built probe to land on the lunar surface, have embedded a growing idea that humans are entering what has been termed the “third space age”.

“To say we’re in a new era, that’s absolutely fair,” said Greg Sadlier, a space economist and the co-founder of the know.space consultancy. “We’re in the era of competition, or the commercial era. The barriers to entry are lower, the costs have fallen, which has opened the doors to a much larger pool of nations,” he said. “It’s the democratisation of space, if you like.”

Today, more than 70 countries have space programmes, but for a long time, the US and the Soviet Union were the only big players.

Humanity’s first space explorer, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, orbited around the globe in April 1961. A year later, US President John F Kennedy gave his famous “we choose to go to the moon” speech, promising to get an American man on the lunar surface by the end of the decade ahead of a “hostile flag of conquest”.

A mural of Yuri Gagarin in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow.View image in fullscreen

“To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money,” Kennedy acknowledged, but the cold war motivated him to spend the modern-day equivalent of hundreds of billions in US taxpayers’ money to win the space race.

The end of the cold war in 1989 brought a brief moment of global optimism, leading to the second, more collaborative space age. The International Space Station was assembled over 13 years and, since 2000, people of multiple nationalities have been living in space constantly, working together on experiments in the orbiting laboratory.

However, this second era also saw a dip in efforts to get humans farther out into space, symbolised by Nasa’s space shuttle programme that never sent people beyond Earth’s orbit and was eventually disbanded in 2011, in large part because the US government did not want to keep bankrolling its high costs. Afterwards, Washington had to rely on Moscow’s Soyuz rockets to get its astronauts into space.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket stands at its Texas launch pad.View image in fullscreen

Yet those high costs have now been driven down by private businesses entering the scene, often as government contractors. In the past few years, some of these businesses have started to make money, although not from headline-grabbing reasons such as space tourism but mostly for sending up communication satellites, especially broadband internet. Many estimates suggest the global space industry could generate revenues of more than $1tn within the next two decades.

In an article published last year by the influential strategy and management consultancy McKinsey & Company, global managing partner Bob Sternfels and his colleagues wrote to CEOs: “If space isn’t part of your strategy, it needs to be.”

They added: “Only recently have we seen significant acceleration down the cost curve: launch costs have fallen 95% (with another massive reduction expected in the coming years) thanks to reuse, improved engineering, and increased volumes.”

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been at the forefront of this movement, launching 96 times last year with its reusable rockets. The company’s largest system, called Starship and still in development, has been marketed as an interplanetary explorer. Musk says he built the 120-metre rocket so that humans can colonise Mars. Before then, Nasa has contracted SpaceX to land astronauts, including the first woman, on the moon this decade.

As a business venture, it could make money well before then by serving as the equivalent of a flying cargo ship. Starship has a payload of up to 150 metric tonnes, five times the load the space shuttle could carry.

Global politics continues to play a role in space but with more players. China has overtaken Russia as the main national contender to the US, with its own space station in operation, probes on the moon and a rover on Mars. On Friday, Beijing is due to launch a robotic spacecraft to the moon’s far side.

The moon’s south pole, in particular, is seen as a “golden belt” for lunar exploration as it contains water ice, which could be used as drinking water and even broken down to make rocket fuel.

Scientists are nervous about both the politicisation and the commercialisation of space, especially with talk of future “mining” operations on the pristine, untouched moon. Advocates of space exploration, however, point to advancements made so far. The CT scan, a critical medical device that can identify tumours, traces its origins to pre-Apollo mission research; astronauts on the space station have been using the unique microgravity environment to better understand diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

For economists like Sadlier, the third space age creates an unprecedented situation – one that could upend the very foundations of the market system. “In economics, we assume that resources are limited; land is limited; natural resources are limited,” he said. “With space, it allows us to change that.”

Source: theguardian.com