The first space race is over, and the second is now underway. But there are two fundamental differences between them. The first was caused by a Cold War rivalry and the proliferation of thousands of nuclear weapons on constant alert; was highlighted by humankind’s monumentally important first foray to another world in the Apollo Program; and ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the effective collapse of communism as an ideology.
That abidingly dangerous East-West political and military competition is over.
This new race is characterized by an increasingly common understanding by the growing international space community that the home planet’s existence as a self-sustaining incubator of life is limited by its size and natural resources. It will depend on international cooperation for a return to the moon and beyond to colonize space for adventure, cohesion and survival and must constitute this civilization’s common — and imperative — political, social and economic goal.
Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson, among many others, understand the supreme importance of spreading out rather than suffering the likely catastrophic consequences of being confined to this fragile and vulnerable little planet.
Bezos, the world’s richest man and the owner of the Blue Origin rocket company, is a true believer, which he demonstrated when he became the first entrepreneur to make it to the edge of space riding, on July 20, one of his rockets to an altitude of 66.5 miles. “The solar system can easily support a trillion humans,” this visionary proclaimed.
Musk founded SpaceX, which takes astronauts and provisions to the International Space Station; and Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, an American spaceflight company, made it to suborbital altitude in his own space plane on July 11. Both, like Bezos, believe that spreading out literally is a matter of life or death.
The fact that all three gravity-defying adventurers made it to space on their own rockets rather than hitching rides with NASA is fundamentally important. It indicates that the second space race depends heavily on the private sector – including carrying tourists who initially purchase phenomenally expensive tickets to reach Earth orbit, with some paying as much as about $55 million to get to the International Space Station — for profit, as airlines do. (Like air travel, that price will drop dramatically as technology improves and competition increases.)
This race to space — while, at all costs, protecting and nurturing the home planet that is our incubator — is supremely beneficial and absolutely imperative. It is based on a growing international awareness of this planet’s fragility and its eventual end. (Global warming is one obvious catastrophic danger.)
The race is also a serious, though still fragmented, effort to spread our collective civilization to other worlds that is just beginning; to colonize space as we colonized the home planet. This race is therefore to assure that humankind survives an environment that is as dangerous as it is bountiful. And the leading players are again the superpowers’ scientific and political establishments and profit-driven capitalists from Wall Street to Moscow to Beijing.
But spreading out should be inherently positive and not only a reaction to a dire threat. The moon should necessarily be the first place to colonize. It has long been understood to be the likely site for an extended human presence in space, as envisioned by the prescient Arthur C. Clarke in “The Exploration of Space,” published in 1951. He called for a permanent base that could be used as an observatory and for mining important minerals. It would be regularly supplied with provisions carried by spaceships — the equivalent of the wagon trains that brought food, clothing and other essentials to the pioneers in the American West.
Access to the moon is universally seen as proof of superpower status, which is why China has launched the Chang’e Project in which a succession of orbiters and landers on stationary and sample return missions have been sent there to bring back rare metals such as titanium.
There is a clear political motive to the project as well as a practical one, since it takes a superpower to get there on its own. And Luna Resurs, a partnership between Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and Europe plans to extract lunar samples and bring them home, while NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the European Space Agency are planning to send people back to the moon in the beginning of what could be the ultimate migration.
It is time for the inhabitants of this beleaguered, endangered and fragile world to think of themselves fundamentally and primarily as earthlings, not just as members of nation-states. We can unite internationally, perhaps through the United Nations, to explore and settle other worlds, starting with a lunar colony and then going on to Mars and beyond. Ultimately, this space race will determine whether we survive and flourish or become as extinct as Tyrannosaurus rex.
William E. Burrows is an aerospace writer, the author of 13 books and a professor emeritus of journalism at New York University.