Will humanity’s new giant leap into space succeed?

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A new order is emerging in space – a race between America and China. But given the needs of space exploration, even these great superpowers will not be able to do it alone.

NASA’s return to the Moon began with its Artemis program. The first of three missions was successfully launched. This unmanned flight tested whether the rockets and technology worked. The second mission will take humans further into space than they have ever been before, and the third launch will put astronauts on the moon for a week where they will conduct experiments. The long-term goal is to use the Moon as a jumping-off point to get to Mars.

But the cost of the program is estimated at $93 billion, a large price for American taxpayers who are already feeling the economic pressure.

In last year’s report to Congress, the US Auditor General’s Office warned of an “unrealistic development schedule” and likely cost overruns, adding that NASA needs to make cost estimates “more reliable and transparent.”

However, even though NASA will receive less overall funding than it requested in 2023, Congress is still supporting its space exploration projects for now.

China has planned to launch its own fully operational Tiangong space station into orbit. The Chinese space program launched probes to the Moon and Mars. By 2025, it plans to create an unmanned research station on the moon, and by 2030 to land astronauts on its surface.

Landing an astronaut on the moon has been done before, but the next step, to Mars, is much more difficult. It is 250 times farther than the Moon, and there are currently no spacecraft capable of sending humans to the red planet.

Even if scientists manage to find a safe way to launch a heavy rocket and land it on a planet with such a thin atmosphere, there is another challenge of safely returning astronauts home after months in space.

Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union was the first man in space

Historically, superpowers have fought for dominance over the Earth. America and Russia competed for dominance in the 1950s and 1960s. The Russians put the first man into orbit. A few years later, the Americans landed a man and planted their flag on the moon.

In the 1970s, a golden era of cooperation began, culminating in the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), which began in 1998.

Together with 13 other partner countries, the two superpowers built the largest structure in space. It does not belong to any one nation, and each depends on the other for work.

An American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut shake hands in orbit, paving the way for a golden age of space cooperation between the two superpowers

It was a symbol of what humanity can achieve if nations put aside their differences and work together.

But the reality was somewhat different. In particular, America prevented China from becoming a partner on the ISS, so the Chinese went their own way.

Within weeks of the invasion of Ukraine, the countries stopped cooperating with Russia. Two joint missions to the Moon between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia have been canceled, as has the joint Mars Rover project to search for signs of life on the Red Planet.

The International Space Station is the largest structure in space, built by 15 countries working in partnership

And yet cooperation continues on the ISS, where Western countries have to work with Russia to keep it in orbit. Americans and Europeans even still train in the center of Moscow in the Russian space headquarters “Star City”.

But what will happen when the ISS expires in 2030?

Juliana Suess, a space policy analyst at the Royal Joint Services Institute in London, says Russia has much less to offer partner countries than before because its technology is outdated. It makes it more likely that the first nation to go into space can become the first.

“Unless the Russians find an alternative by the time the ISS is decommissioned or they build their own space station, which is unlikely given the current circumstances and sanctions, it may not have a single human spaceflight,” she says.

Russia’s predicament comes at a time when China’s space program is rapidly developing. It has launched more than 200 rockets in the past decade, although America’s spending on space still dwarfs China’s.

China realizes that the partnership offers technical know-how and money. He invited other countries barred from the ISS to join them and announced a proposal for scientific experiments.

China’s orbiting space station is now manned and available to all countries for scientific experiments

Seventy-two countries now have their own space programs because they cannot afford to be left behind in what has become a new space race.

Astronaut billionaires

Space is an important part of our daily life. We depend on satellites for weather forecasts, communications, banking, not to mention valuable surveillance tools for nation states. In 2021, about 5,000 satellites were launched. Going back 20 years ago, about 800 were launched annually.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos paid for William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies, to take a short flight into space on one of his Blue Origin rockets.

Space is an expensive and technically complex business. No country can do it alone. New partnerships are being forged, particularly with the new brash billionaires on the block.

Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is already launching passengers into orbit. A billionaire entrepreneur cuts costs with a reusable rocket. Not to be outdone, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wants to build a commercial orbital station called Orbital Reef.

Helen Sharman, who was the first British astronaut on a mission to the Soviet space station Mir in 1991, believes that the current international rivalry may be overshadowed by the pragmatism of the private sector.

“It will really be a commercialization that will bring companies together around the world,” she told the BBC. “We don’t care where they are registered, what matters is what they do for the good of the world.”

Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is developing the most powerful rocket ever created to send humans to Mars

The prospect of financial gain and scientific discoveries encourages cooperation. Private companies can help establish new collaborations in space, but they must abide by their own country’s laws. When countries imposed sanctions against Russia in 2022, companies were required to withdraw from contracts with Russia.

Dr. Josef Aschbacher, who is the head of the European Space Agency, is determined to keep Europe in the new space race. It recently increased funding by 2 billion pounds ($2.4 billion), despite the financial difficulties facing governments.

“Space is one of those sectors that is expanding very quickly and much faster than in the last few decades. We can’t lose that,” he told the BBC. “We really need to be actively involved in this sector because I want to create new business opportunities for companies in our member states.”

Outposts on the moon within a decade are a real possibility

It is the nations that will lead the space exploration of the future. But the challenges will require them to unite into a single group or “bloc” of countries to share information and compete with other blocs. The European Space Agency has been doing this successfully for many years.

New laws for space

But what could potentially hold back the next big push to other worlds is the set of international laws that govern space. The strangely named Outer Space Treaty has not been updated since it was signed in 1967, when 31 countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, pledged not to have nuclear weapons in space.

According to Juliana Suess of the Royal Joint Services Institute, it is not fit for purpose.

“It’s not about companies, it’s not about billionaires,” she said. “Space is completely different than it was in 1967.”

It was the first color image of Earth humans had ever seen, sent after one of America’s first missions to the moon.

New rules governing the commercial exploitation of the Moon, Mars and other places were introduced by the UN in 1979, but the US, China and Russia refused to sign them.

ESA’s Josef Aschbacher believes that the new space race will hinder overall development until a new space treaty is concluded.

“In space, we use the same orbits for satellites, we use the same surface of the moon for China, the United States, Europe,” he said. “We need a way to work together to establish the rules of engagement and the rules of how we work.”

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