THE DAWN OF A NEW SPACE RACE?
Last month saw the launch of 3 different missions from 3 nations to the Red planet - China’s Tianwen-1, USA’s Mars 2020, and UAE’s Hope. Last year too we saw a similar figure being launched towards the Moon – China’s Chang’e 4, Israel’s Beresheet, and India’s Chandrayaan-2. This rate of launch to the Moon and Mars is something that we haven’t seen since the space race of the 1960s and 1970s.
Along with this, we are now really starting to see the competition between private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origins and Boeing heat up, as they seek to bag as many NASA contracts as they can.
All of this begs the question - Are we in the midst of a new space race?
From left to right - Mars 2020 mission, Chandrayaan-2, and Chang'e 4
NEW SPACE RACE
It is important to note that this space race is being termed as “new” for a reason.
Firstly, the previous one, which was between the USA and USSR is long over. That era is bygone. This one isn’t about ideological supremacy anymore. This one isn’t about capitalism vs. communism anymore. This one isn’t about flags and footprint either. In fact, as we will later find out, this one isn’t about nations at all.
This space race is about the pursuit of resources, creating economic opportunities, and colonising off-world sites in the process. Unlike last time, where only governments of the two superpowers took the centre stage, both nations and private companies from across the globe are involved. It isn’t bipolar anymore. This race can be between different nations with their respective companies, and between companies of the same nation too.
If we’re talking only about space exploration and not the new space race, then there are a lot of key players around the world. Space organizations like Europe’s ESA, Japan’s JAXA, and Russia’s Roscosmos (or the erstwhile USSR) have made commendable achievements in space and deserve a lot of praise. However, this article will mostly be limited to those nations which are actively in a race with each other and those companies which have made significant strides, and been economically sound too.
Hence, in this new space race, we’ll be looking at three key nations that are driving the next series of missions and expeditions forward – China, India, and the USA. Later on, we’ll cover the role of private companies in this race too.
China plans to further liberalise and privatise its traditionally government-controlled space sector too. Chinese startups like LinkSpace and i-Space are already starting to garner significant international attention for their successful test flights. has an $8 billion annual space budget and it is set to dramatically increase in the future as its ambitious plans for the Moon and Mars start materialising. It already has a full-fledged moon exploration program and plans to send its astronauts to the Moon's south pole and establish a permanent base there in the 2030s. Its Mars exploration program came to light with the recent launch of Tianwen-1. It plans to complete its own large modular space station sometime in the mid-2020s, directly rivalling the supremacy of the International Space Station (ISS).
A timeline of recent major achievements by the CNSA
The Chandrayaan 3 mission of India, if successful, will make the country the first in the world to land on the south pole of the moon and fourth overall. Also it is pursuing the Gaganyaan mission, which plans to send the first Indian astronauts into space aboard an indigenous spacecraft. If successful, it will make the country only the fourth in the world to achieve this capability.
Among its exploration program to the Sun, and other planets like Venus, it has a Mars exploration program as well, with Mangalyaan-2 set to launch in 2024, Privatisation is on the cards as well. Plans to expand ISRO’s commercial wings like the Antrix Corp. are being materialised, which will allow the space agency to launch even more satellites from international customers and stimulate the growth of its space startups.
Timeline of recent major achievements by the ISRO
Geopolitics of China and India's space race
The battle between these two big rising economies of the world will also be a defining aspect of the 21st-century space race. There’s a lot of geopolitics at play between the two Asian giants too.
Cooperation with western nations
India can collaborate with Western powers like the US and Europe in space missions. A testament of that relationship is the $1.5 billion NISAR mission - a project being jointly developed by ISRO and NASA.
There’s a formal ban on China by the US since 2011 from collaborating with NASA on space missions due to security and intellectual property theft concerns.
Reality Check for Both Nations
It goes without saying that China is far ahead in the human spaceflight game. It launched its first astronauts way back in 2003, while India will do it nearly 20 years later in 2022. China also has an economy larger than India’s, which allows it to have much bigger space budgets than ISRO’s. What makes India stand out, however, is its incredibly cost-effective space program. For instance, the entire Gaganyaan human spaceflight program is set to cost around $1.5 billion - the amount NASA spent on one Space Shuttle launch.
Fun Fact : The Mangalyaan mission on the other hand cost less than the movie Gravity, at $74 million.
Hence China has the advantage of being established and having much greater funding while India has the advantage of cooperation from its western partners and a cost-effective space program.
Space diplomacy being pursued by both the powers
China along with Bangladesh, Pakistan, and numerous other countries has set up a regional organisation called the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organisation, with projects that aim to share data, establish a space communication network, and track space objects too.
To counter this, India in 2019 announced that it is setting up five large ground stations and more than 500 small terminals in five neighbouring countries – Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
A brief History
The United States of America is an undisputed and formidable space power that emerged victorious from the space race of the 1950s and 1960s and has maintained its prestige among other space faring and aspiring nations of the world. However, its interest in human spaceflight and lunar exploration declined throughout the 1970s. It had beat the Soviets to the moon in 1969, landed its astronauts there, and had no real motivation to keep pursuing its space ambitions. The crumbling economy of the 1970s forced NASA to put an end to its expensive Moon ambitions. NASA adapted accordingly and started developing a more inexpensive and efficient means of reaching space, which resulted in the Space Shuttle program. Whether or not the Space Shuttle program was successful is debatable.
The retirement of the Space Shuttle left the US with no human-rated spacecraft of its own, and it ended up relying on Russia to launch its astronauts into space.
Recent changes in the United States Space Policy
In light of the recent developments in space, all of this is finally changing. Just this year in May, SpaceX launched NASA astronauts to the ISS from American soil, ending the nearly 10-year long reliance on Russia. And if it was a competition that NASA was looking for, then they now have it in the form of a China which has extraordinarily risen and grown over the last two decades and has its own set of ambitious plans for the Moon and Mars.
The growing militarization of space by Russia and China, and the fact that India too now possesses anti-satellite weapons, has led President Trump to sign an executive order creating a Space Force, thereby officially bringing the US military into the space arena.
NASA is now aggressively pursuing its Artemis program, which aims to return Americans to the moon nearly 50 years after the last lunar landing. Its goal is to land "the first woman and the next man" on the lunar surface by 2024.
While Artemis could be called a successor to the Apollo program of the 1960s and 70s, there’s one key difference - this time there are international and private players involved, and unlike the Apollo program, astronauts won’t solely be relying on NASA built rockets anymore. The main reason for involving private companies in the logistics of this program is to make launching to the Moon more cost-effective.
Why must private companies venture out?
Collaboration with their respective governments in national programs is one thing, but what really drives billionaires like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson and countless other private companies to pursue their independent ambitions and compete fiercely with each other?
1/ Satellite Launches
2/ The SpaceX Revolution
3/ Other emerging technologies
A 16 Psyche, part of the asteroid belt sandwiched between Mars and Jupiter that can be used for astroid mining.
— Name, Title
Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, more than a decade ago, articulated the concept of an Earth-Moon-Mars industrial complex.
Musk & Mars
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the foremost organization when it comes to seriously pursuing colonization of Mars.
How the new space race will change our lives
A new space race is indeed upon us, a period which will drive the next series of human achievements and technological innovations forward. However, this time, there’s more than national prestige between superpowers at stake. This time, private companies, industrial conglomerates, and entrepreneurs will drive their nation’s respective governments forward in the pursuit of off-world resources. This space race has the potential to drive the economies of numerous nations forward and create millions of jobs in the process. It will also bring about a technical revolution and drive the next series of innovations.
It is important to note that space is still extremely hard and prohibitively expensive. It is still very much an avenue for big governments, companies, or entrepreneurs with large financial backing and billionaires with ambitious space plans. However, this is fast changing. We are going through a paradigm shift, and as space starts getting increasingly privatized, its economics will start to make sense. This is already happening with SpaceX and numerous other space companies driving down the otherwise exorbitant cost of launching into space and thereby opening up the sector to many more people.
I personally feel that the new space race bears much resemblance to the development of computers and the internet over time. Both technologies, in their own primitive forms, were once exclusively the domain of militaries and governments. In the case of computers - take IBM systems, and in the case of the internet - take ARPANET of the US military, both from the 1960s. Both were incredibly expensive and difficult to operate technologies, were mostly used for research and military purposes and they weren’t something you’d find in an everyday household. However, as time went on and newer private companies started exploring and competing for their independent ambitions with each other, the costs and expertise to make and run such things were driven down dramatically.
This culminated in the dot com era of the 1990s, a period dominated by the widespread adoption of personal computers (PC) and the Internet across the developed world. Computers with an internet connection were now not a rare sight, and it dramatically changed the world as we know it. Later on, as costs plummeted even further, we saw the adoption of these technologies now across the developing world, with China and India leading the pact. Cut to 2020, and the reality now is that anyone in India with roughly a 100 USD to spare can buy their own smartphone with a Jio 4G connection, and access all of humanity’s knowledge from the palm of their hands.
That right there, is the power of innovation, technology, and enterprise.
I expect something similar to happen with the new space race too.