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Thursday, March 23, 2023

How will we know when we win the new space race?

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When President John F. Kennedy threw down the gauntlet for the first race to the moon, how the winners and losers would be determined was quite simple. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” he said. The nation that accomplished this feat first, the United States or the Soviet Union, would win the challenge Kennedy issued.

A little more than eight years later, on July 20, 1969, the United States won the first race to the moon. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong famously said stepping onto the lunar surface.

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Over 50 years later, another space race has developed between NASA, along with a coalition of nations and private companies, and the People’s Republic of China. But what constitutes a victory in Space Race 2.0? Surely the winner will not just be the side that returns humans to the moon first?

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A recent article in Foreign Policy suggests that two metrics exist to determine who wins the new space race. The first is which side gets to make the rules for operating in space. The second is which side demonstrates the greater ability to economically develop space, starting with the moon.

As far as rule making goes, the NASA-led alliance has the edge, thanks to the Artemis Accords. The accords are a non-controversial set of rules that mandate cooperation and noninterference, based on legal precedent. Over 20 nations have signed the Artemis Accords, with Germany and India remaining holdouts.

China and Russia oppose the Artemis Accords. Their excuse is apparently that they feel the accords are too slanted toward the United States and Western commercial interests. Their real reason is more likely that the Artemis Accords would prevent China in particular from establishing a hegemony on the moon and other celestial bodies.

NASA and its partners also lead in the economic development of space. Everyone knows about billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and how his commercial space company SpaceX has lowered the cost of spaceflight by orders of magnitude. Other space launch startups include Blue Origin, Relativity Space and Rocket Lab. America is going back to the moon partly because of these new commercial partners.

According to American intelligence, China is making great strides in establishing its own commercial space sector. By 2030, according to a congressionally mandated report, China will become a global competitor. However, considering Beijing’s tendency to apply a heavy hand to private business, one could cast doubt on that prediction. China is also overly dependent on industrial espionage for innovation

Still, NASA and its partners can do several things to prove that the path to economically developing the moon and, in time, the rest of the solar system through the participants in the NASA-led Artemis program. The Lunar Base Camp planned for the 2030s can be sustained by mining the moon for water, oxygen and building materials. But as the Base Camp expands to a full-scale colony, the Artemis alliance can do more.

For example, it can take Blue Origin up on its proposal to build solar panels using lunar material. The moon-built solar panels can then be used to build a prototype space-based solar power station to collect solar energy in space and beam it down to an Earth-based receiving station.

Astronauts on the moon can also mine the regolith for helium 3, an isotope deposited on the moon by billions of years of solar wind. Many believe the substance will fuel clean, affordable and abundant fusion energy. A SpaceX Starship filled with helium 3, delivered to Earth and sold to companies developing fusion power plants, would also be proof that the Artemis Alliance can create a space-based economy using lunar resources.

Thus, the winner of Space Race 2.0 will not be won by whoever is the first to pull off a flags and footsteps mission to the moon over 50 years after Apollo. The winner will be the side that can expand human economic activity beyond the Earth, under a set of easy to understand and acceptable rules, and thus direct the future of human civilization going forward.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

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