Shortcuts / 06 May 2021

The Modern Space Race

For thousands of years, people have looked up at the night sky with questions and as technology has advanced so have we in coming closer and closer to answering them. Since the race between the US and the Soviet Union to reach the moon in the 1960s there has been a growing appetite to explore the great unknown. In this Squiz Shortcut, we take you through what’s been happening since Neil and Buzz touched down, why there is so much talk about Mars, and the private companies joining the space race.

Remind me, how did this all start?
With a Nazi rocket. In the 1930s and 40s, Nazi Germany saw the possibilities of using long-distance ballistic missiles as weapons. Late in WWII, V2 missiles were fired at Paris, Belgium and the UK.

Why were they special?
The V2 rockets had a far greater range, and the destination could be programmed. So it was no surprise that when the war was over, countries scrambled to get their hands on the technology.

Who was in the hunt?
America and the USSR, and it was the Soviets who were the first to get on the scoreboard when it launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957.

I bet the US wasn’t happy about that…
Nope. It came as a bit of a shock to the US who had hoped to launch its own satellite first, and it fed fears it had fallen behind in developing new technology. So the launch of Sputnik really launched the space race and raised tensions between the rivals.

What did America do about it?
NASA launched the Apollo space program. Its mission: to get humans on the moon.

Sure, but it got off to a tragic start in 1967 when 3 astronauts on board the Apollo 1 were killed during a test flight that caught on fire. But they pressed on and there were several Apollo missions that followed.

And then came the BIG moment, right?
Yep. In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and walked on its surface while Michael Collins orbited above during the Apollo 11 mission. They were the first there, and it was a victory for the US in the space race.

That was a long time ago, what’s happening now?
Moon missions are back in vogue, including the ambition to set up a permanent base on its surface. And Mars is all the rage. That’s because scientists consider Mars to be the planet that is most capable of being a place where humans could one day live.

And there have been recent missions there, yes?
Yes, that’s because once every 26 months, there is a window where Earth and Mars come closer together. That happened last year and it saw 3 countries make moves.

And they are?
The United Arab Emirates launched the Hope mission, which plans to stay in a wide orbit to study Mars’ weather and climate systems. The US is up there with Percy (more on him in a tick), and China launched its first Mars exploration mission too.

What’s China’s plan?
Its Tianwen-1 mission is currently in orbit but unlike the Hope mission, it’s planning to land on the planet sometime in May or June. It’s there to study its surface and search for water ice and liquid water that may be linked with signs of life. The stakes are high for China because it has been trying to assert itself in the space race for years and particularly over its neighbour India.

And what about the US and Percy?
That’s the nickname for NASA’s Perseverance rover which landed in mid-February – and he has been keeping busy doing the groundwork to inform future human missions to the Red Planet – a goal NASA hopes to achieve by the 2030s…

Sounds crowded up there…
You haven’t heard the half of it… Government-led agencies have achieved a lot but it’s private companies that have stepped it up in recent years.

Why’s that?
Governments are focused on space-for-earth activities such as national security, basic science and national pride whereas the private sector’s focus is on getting people in space.

Who’s involved?
Two of the biggest names in the biz are billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. According to them, their main goal is to make space more accessible to ordinary people.

That’s bold…
It sure is. Bezos, aka the Amazon tycoon, founded Blue Origin in 2000. The company wants a permanent base on the moon to build space colonies and eventually have 1 trillion people living and working in space. Just last week it said that it will be selling tickets for rides on its space tourism rocket New Shepard.

And Elon Musk?
He founded SpaceX in 2002 and calls himself the Imperator of Mars. We’ll let that sink in… Musk has been very vocal about taking people to Mars and establishing a self-sustaining city there. He has secured 60% of the global commercial launch market and is building ever-larger spacecraft. He has also received a number of contracts from NASA, including one to put NASA astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972.

Why all the interest all of a sudden?
Using private companies for space exploration isn’t new. NASA has long awarded contracts – usually to defence contractors – because it only has to fund a certain amount while the partner pays the rest.

Are there too many chefs in the kitchen?
Well, one of the hopes is that having different companies approach the same kind of problem could mean more innovation and solutions, get governments’ agendas out of it, and open the door to more exploration.

Squiz recommends:

Elon Musk is adding the host of Saturday Night Live to his resume. That’s on Saturday, 8 May and it’s controversial already

The landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover on Mars – that only happened a few months ago in February so it’s still pretty raw and exciting.

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