Human spaceflight programs across the world are gaining momentum as concurrent geopolitical developments have regenerated an atmosphere of strategic competition. The United States and Russia, vying for influence across Europe and the Middle East, are once again brandishing their space credentials as part of this campaign.
NASA is proceeding with its “Journey to Mars” and will demonstrate new technologies in cislunar space. Russia announced the revitalization of the Cold War-era robotic Luna program that will now serve as a precursor for human missions to the moon by 2029.
Deviations from the Cold War do occur in this instance. Russia is willing to collaborate with the European Space Agency for the Luna program as well as to establish a permanent base on the moon. Russia is also courting China, which emerged as only the third country to indigenously orbit humans in space and has been perceived as the main strategic competitor to the United States. Its robotic missions, the presence of vast reserves of helium-3 and an opportunity for technological demonstration could be reasons enough for China to land on the moon. Sino-Russian cooperation to jointly explore outer space is evident in their attempted Phobos-Grunt mission to the Martian moon and in the Mars 500 experiment conducted in collaboration with ESA.
Those entities calling for greater cooperation on these issues and human spaceflight in particular routinely point to the International Space Station, which has been continuously supported by the Cold War enemies for 15 years. However, such cooperation has only left humanity in low Earth orbit (LEO). On the contrary, the strategic competition of the Cold War propelled mankind to set foot on the moon while mimicking such a feat on Mars appeared around the corner.
Observed from a neutral vantage point, competition is the key for mankind to reach distant destinations. Competition is the key to break the limits set on funding levels for human missions. And competition, of the present order, will help solve many perils back on Earth.
The original space competition started in 1957 when the erstwhile Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik. While the Soviet Union reveled in its achievement, the United States feared losing its competitive edge as a technological superpower. By the time the U.S. responded in 1958 with Explorer-1, the Soviet Union had already launched Sputnik-2 with a dog named Laika as the passenger.
Likewise, the first man in space, first woman in space, first lunar probe to photograph the far side of the moon and a range of interplanetary missions proved Soviet leadership in space exploration. The United States responded in kind but with an acknowledgment that it needed a leap in space technology that the Soviet Union would dare not challenge. Thus the first space race resulted in humanity’s taking its first step on the moon.
That one small step for Neil Armstrong was a giant geopolitical leap for the United States. For a string of reasons in the political, financial and technological domains, the Soviet Union did not mount a challenge. The U.S. moon landings continued with the ambition to reach out to new destinations in the solar system and beyond, which is symbolically represented by the patches worn by Apollo 17 astronauts. On the contrary, human spaceflight got scaled down to LEO as the politicians in charge of appropriations needed extra returns for funding such large-scale, agency-wide programs.
U.S. President Richard Nixon ultimately canceled the Apollo program, replacing it with a future space shuttle to ensure sustainable access to space. He had also committed to the policy of detente with the Soviet Union, replacing competition in space with cooperation. It resulted in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), where an Apollo crew module with two astronauts docked with a Soyuz module orbiting three cosmonauts. This project became a tool of diplomacy and cooperation between the two superpowers. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, it served as inspiration for the International Space Station, which remains a prime symbol of space cooperation and will continue to operate at least until 2024 in its present form.
However, it has been more than four decades since mankind left LEO. Moreover, as detente faded, a destructive competition ensued, resulting in demonstrations of antisatellite weapons. The strategic competition of the Cold War kick-started a realization of what used to be science fiction.
Now that the competition between the United States and Russia has been reignited, so should the launch vehicles taking humans beyond this planet. And unlike those of yesteryear, the next generation of human spaceflight should concentrate on making outer space a permanent respite to our problems.
The Apollo program was more of a technological demonstration than a scientific endeavor. However, it inspired countless students to major in space sciences and engineering, and not just in the United States. That is a key for continued robotic exploration of the moon, Mars, asteroids, comets and outer solar system. The chemical makeup of these planetary bodies is now extensively studied and plans abound for their exploration and exploitation. Asteroids will be mined in space and transported back to Earth. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will send astronauts beyond LEO for the first time since Apollo, will see them chipping material off an asteroid, or part of an asteroid, dragged to a lunar orbit for experiments back on Earth. The planetary mining industry is already involved extensively in this project.
The moon and Mars initially will be mined for generating fuel and water but permanent mines to extract helium-3 and other materials cannot be ruled out in the future. The costs are high and technology is still in the nascent stage, but these problems do not appear giant in the face of environmental degradation on Earth and imminent threats to its biosphere. As such, the future human missions to space will be long-term, hunting for resources and making permanent outposts there.
Outer space will ensure humanity’s survival, drive our economics and satisfy our thirst for exploration. It will become a permanent part of our existence, and as intelligent beings we need to shape that future from the present situation.
Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.