In January the world was regaled with photos of the dark side of the moon (yes, Virginia, it is a real thing), from, wait for it, the Chinese lunar probe. I know what you are thinking, because I was as well: “The Chinese have a space program?” Indeed. Since major governmental funding for space exploration was pretty much abandoned in the 1990s, news about activities above our hemisphere has been just about non-existent. That is not to say that there were not thousands of scientists looking skyward and thinking, “If only…” It was just that attention and financing turned to more earthly pursuits, such as battling inflation and creating more jobs. The fact is, worldwide, there are dozens of nations and enterprises that share the same goal: continued space exploration. Exactly who, and towards what ends, are the subject of this article.
Millions of American kids, now in our 50s and 60s and beyond, grew up watching NASA’s space exploits from our living rooms. We knew the astronauts by name, what their favorite foods and non-work activities were, and which missions they’d flown. At that time, the goal was to land on the moon. What one was supposed to do once they arrived there, remained, and still does, to be seen. Apparently getting there was all the fun. At that time America had a rival in what was termed, “the space race”: Russia. Russia has always been cast as this large, clumsy land where its citizens are conformist and their rules of conduct regimented and somewhat harsh. It was easy to view Russian spacecraft as bulky, their instrumentation with its large screens, gauges and knobs as more Jules Verne than science, and Russian cosmonauts as sullen and unsmiling. Public relations were not part of their job spec apparently, so they looked like villains when compared to the smiling, waving, and outgoing American astronauts.
During the Kennedy Administration, the American space program received extensive funding, a shot in the arm, so to speak. Next, and throughout the 1960s the space race was on. While the Russians were the first to send a man into space orbit, the real question was, ‘Who would be the first team to land on the moon?’ The covert actions of the Russian space program were contrasted with the widely-publicized activities of the American astronauts whose lives were detailed in popular press and magazines such as LIFE. With the infusion of cash from Washington, and a greenlight to ‘get there first’, launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida were headline news and well-attended. Civilians came from across the nation to watch. They had to park along highways and peer from property lines as non-military personnel were prohibited on the military base. Finally on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon’s surface and intoned his scripted line, “One step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
It is a little known fact, but the Russians have never set foot on the moon’s soil. Uh, uh. Nope. Not ever. Directly after the successful Apollo 11 flight, the Soviet Union cancelled its space program. Game over. However, in 2012 a British journalist reported that the Russian space program was alive and well, and that a moon landing was planned by 2030. Funding for a $14- billion spacestation is being raised. However, internal struggles including its overall business plan have stalled manned-missions into outer space. The contention is that Russia lost the space race 60 years ago, why underscore that defeat? Aim for Mars instead.
A New Century Brings New Goals
The moon is alluring for two reasons: mining and as a launchpad to Mars. From core samples, scientists believe that precious metals and other rare elements used to generate power can be easily extracted from the moon’s surface. Mars’ atmosphere is considered to be most similar to Earth’s therefore human life could potentially flourish there. That brings us to who else in our universe has an active space program and what their stated intentions are: Canada, Japan, a European federation comprised of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, China, and Norway.
In addition, there are a number of private corporations who have targeted human spaceflight as a near future goal. Of these, SpaceX (Elon Musk) Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) and Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson) are the best-funded, by leading technology and internet entrepreneurs, and therefore demonstrating real progress towards achieving their goals. Teamed with NASA, Musk’s SpaceX recently launched its Falcon 9 rocket as part of the US Air Forces’ Global Positioning System project. Not to be outdone, China has emerged as the first nation to land a spacecraft on the far or dark side of the moon (facing away from earth).
The Chinese National Space Administration also plays close to the vest with its intentions, however it is known that the Chang’e-4, a lander and rover vehicle will remain behind and probe the structure and mineral composition of the dark side, as well as make astronomical observations. These findings are expected to be supplemented next year when the Chang’e-5 is launched. It is also predicted that China intends to launch a Mars rover within five years.
It would appear that the moon is no longer the final frontier for space exploration and that Mars, with its allegedly similar to Earth’s climate is. Living in a world that is consumer not conservation-oriented, is it possible that our world leaders are looking skyward for a future solution to overpopulation and dwindling resources? Or are we just a competitive species and are exploring space because it is ‘out there’? It will not happen in this author’s lifetime, but I cannot help but wonder if our space explorers will be met by little green men speaking fluent English asking, “Hey, buddy, what took you so long?”