In heaven as it is on Earth: The new space race

Later this month, if all has gone according to plan, a rocket called the Falcon Heavy will take off from Cape Canaveral, in Florida. Its mission is to put a sports car in orbit around the sun. The Falcon Heavy is the latest product of SpaceX, a firm founded by Elon Musk, an American billionaire. The car is Mr Musk’s own, made by Tesla, another of his businesses. SpaceX has the explicit aim, besides making money, of enabling people to travel to and colonise Mars. Before then, the Falcon Heavy may earn its keep lifting satellites and carrying tourists on “slingshot” trips around the moon.

Mr Musk’s ambition is to propel humanity beyond its home planet. But what is going on in space today also reflects the shifting balance of power on Earth. In the days of the space race between America and the Soviet Union, the heavens were a front in the cold war between two competing ideologies. Since then, power has not merely shifted between countries. It has also shifted between governments and individuals.

Wacky racesInternational competition is not absent from outer space. China, for instance, is making noises about Mars. Last year it deemed an expanse of desert in the country’s north-west to be sufficiently Martian to be reserved as a training ground for Mars-bound “taikonauts”. China is also moving its principal space port from the north to the south of the country, partly in order to take advantage of the extra launch velocity imparted nearer the equator by Earth’s spin (see article). In America, meanwhile, President Donald Trump signed an order in December directing NASA, the country’s space agency, to prepare for a return of American astronauts to the moon.

Yet in comparison with the 1960s, things are all quite slow-moving. Actual target dates were notably absent from Mr Trump’s announcement, and China’s ambitions for men and women on the moon have a similarly lackadaisical feel to them. This greater relaxation about matters space-related is in part because the original race was seen as a crucial test of whether capitalism or central planning was the better economic system (though NASA’s effort was probably the most centrally planned civilian operation in the history of the United States). The lack of intensity in space today reflects the calmer nature of superpower rivalry on Earth.
It also reflects the diffusion of wealth and technology. The number of “spacefaring” countries has increased since the 1960s, when only America and the Soviet Union counted. Now—besides China and Russia—Europe,

India and Japan also have space programmes that can, and do, reach the moon and other heavenly bodies with robot spacecraft.

As for the idea that a private individual could run a space programme, that would have been laughable back then. Now several are. For Mr Musk has rivals, from Blue Origin (backed by Jeff Bezos of Amazon) at one end to a plucky, pint-sized startup called Rocket Lab at the other. (It hopes to make its first launch into orbit in the next few days.) Lifting satellites into orbit is a proper business, and therefore properly the business of businessfolk. The fact that a wealthy person is willing to spend his money on such a fanciful space project as going to Mars is, though, an intriguing departure—and a good measure of just how rich some people have become.

For now, the world’s private space programmes, whether commercial or quixotic, are mostly American. But the model is spreading. Even China sports nascent rocket firms. The incipient race to Mars will include companies as well as countries. That will make it a better test of economic systems than the original space race ever was.- The Economist

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