Space: Fighting over the final frontier
Fifty years after the U.S. won the first lunar space race, “the moon is hot again,” said Rivka Galchen in The New Yorker. China’s national space administration in January landed a spacecraft on the moon’s far side, part of the country’s plan to build a lunar base. India, Russia, and Japan aren’t far behind in their interplanetary ambitions. Israel also recently launched an unmanned lunar spacecraft. And then there is NASA, which is now under pressure from the White House to have astronauts return to the moon by 2024. One plan is to build the Lunar Gateway, a space station that would orbit the moon, which “could turn the moon into a way station” for deeper exploration. There are commercial interests at stake, too. “Both private industry and national agencies regard the mining of water and precious materials” on the moon as something “not too far off.”
Private companies make this space race different from the 1960s, said Miriam Kramer in Axios.com. American astronauts currently need Russian-made rockets to reach the International Space Station, but Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are scrambling to fix that. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are working on the first iteration of suborbital “space tourism.” The global space economy, which includes commercial human spaceflight, could be worth $1.1 trillion by 2040. Moon colonization might not be far behind, so “we should plan for the extraplanetary community we want,” said Ariel Ekblaw in The Wall Street Journal. Before startups begin constructing “space advertisements” and lunar hotels, we need planners and architects who can “thoughtfully adapt the principles of communal life on Earth to our nascent lives in space.” This will require collaboration, not competition—similar to what brought us the International Space Station two decades ago.
It’ll also require a lot of money, said Eric Berger in ArsTechnica.com, which the administration doesn’t want to ask for and Congress isn’t likely to approve. NASA estimates the Lunar Gateway project and a 2024 crewed landing will require an extra $40 billion to complete, on top of the agency’s $20 billion annual budget. “Such an increase in budget would be unprecedented” since the 1960s. Moreover, some NASA engineers have “already begun to resist the accelerated schedule,” over concerns about risk and safety. But come on, said Robert Weiner and John Black in the Orlando Sentinel, “there is no time for complacency.” It’s not even about the moon. “The race is to get to Mars, and China is officially beating us.” We’ve already shown there is water there. But “it’s the potential of the unknown—what could be” that should be motivating us. After all, “knowledge is power, and right now China is usurping American power.” ■