Has the 21st Century Space Race Started?

A cartoon image of two rocketships each with a usa and chinese flag on them. Astronauts sit in the ships facing the moon.

Image Courtesy of WSJ

By John Maggio

For the first time since the disasters of the Challenger and Columbia, America is looking to the stars. For better or worse, they are not facing the great nebula alone.

The Cold War saw the U.S. and U.S.S.R. competing across many fields, from nuclear arms and proxy wars to the Olympics and chess. One competition between the two that has placed itself as a defining part of human history is the Space Race. 

From the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to Neil Armstrong’s 1969 first step on the Moon, the Space Race sent the human race to becoming a cosmic-facing yearning to leave the blue-and-green home we have known for our entire life.

Since then, the American taste for space exploration has lessened for many reasons. One is the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, ending the Cold War rivalry with the ideologically opposed superpower. Another is the failure of the U.S.A.’s space exploration from the disasters of Challenger and Columbia in 1986 and 2003, respectively. Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) losing a Mars Orbiter after failing to convert inches to millimeters had caused public distaste for astronautical escapades. The desire to explore the stars had died.

Today, there is a new spark to explore the last frontier. 

In the past few years, more nations have landed on the Moon, joining the U.S. and U.S.S.R./Russia. China’s Chang’e 3 mission in 2013 landed a lunar lander and rover. Chandrayaan-3, India’s 2023 mission, consisted of a lander and a rover. 2023 also saw Japan’s landing of the Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) mission

Last week, the first privately owned lunar lander landed on the Moon when Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus successfully landed. This is just those landing on the Moon, not including the launches and orbits by companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic.

Besides the innovations by international and private explorations, NASA is looking to get back into the stars. The last time NASA landed on the Moon was in 1972, but with their new Artemis mission, they want to make future Moon landings just one step in their cosmic ambitions.

“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” NASA’s Artemis mission goal states.

The mission goal continues, “We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”

These goals are very ambitious for NASA, so the proposed partnership with international and commercial partners is not surprising. 

The possible international partnerships will likely come from Europe, Japan, and India, as each of these potential partners has established individual space programs with recent progress.

This can be seen by Japan and India’s lunar landings last year. The Europeans have a 22-member space program, the European Space Agency (ESA). The ESA is largely a research and development agency with notable satellite and observatory missions.

The question remains whether China will act as a competitor or partner to the U.S. This will likely be determined by other fields between the two countries, such as the economy and geopolitics.

For the private sector, NASA will likely continue to work with companies like SpaceX to complete their stated goals.

The two have cooperated before, most notably with the Crew Missions, where SpaceX rocket Falcon 9 has and continues to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. With the recent landing by Intuitive Machines involving the help of both NASA and SpaceX, NASA will likely work with other commercial space programs to achieve their stated mission.

The stated end goal of Artemis is to put the first man on Mars. NASA will treat the Moon as a practice for reaching the red planet. In a detailed video, NASA states how the process of going to the Moon will take place and how this trip will lead to an understanding of how to develop their plans for reaching Mars.

The 21st-century ventures into the interstellar void are not part of some bilateral divide between two ideologically opposed nuclear states. 

However, the coming advances will take place in a much more crowded field than in the past and will likely be a crucial part of future geopolitical games of chess here on the terrestrial body we call home.

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