In a few weeks we’ll be celebrating what is perhaps the greatest adventure that man has ever undertaken. July 20, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the moon, putting astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin into the history books. That journey was a culmination of a massive effort by the United States to become the first nation to put a man on the Earth’s satellite. That effort was the result of an intense competition between America and their Soviet counterparts, and was driven out of fear. But as the second decade of the 21st century winds down, we’re now looking at the start of another space race that could take us back to the moon, and beyond.
The second space race, if it comes to develop, will be much different from the first. For starters, it won’t just involve nation states this time out, although the U.S. is set to play a continued role and China’s burgeoning space program could take part too. This time around however, there will be a number of privately owned space programs that will be a part of the race as well, and they could reach the moon or Mars faster, more efficiently, and more economically than their state-sponsored competitors.
If you think a second space race seems unlikely, consider this. NASA –– under a direct order from President Donal Trump –– had set a goal to return to the moon by 2024. That’s a pretty ambitious plan considering the budget constraints America’s space program has faced in recent years. But just today, the space agency successfully tested its Orion rocket, which could be the key to taking man beyond Earth orbit and on to other planets. That test even included an experimental crew capsule, which saw its first flight tests. Engineers have only just begun to examine the data, but so far it looks like things went exactly according to plan.
While the Russians were the main competitor for the U.S. back in the days of the first space race, it appears that China could be gearing up to throw its hat in the ring as well. The Chinese space program has successfully sent astronauts into orbit in recent years and has landed a probe on the far-side of the moon. The next phase of development is to create a heavy rocket that can take humans to the moon aboard a craft that can successful land on the surface and see those travelers safely back home. The world was given a hint at those plans last fall, when the new system was unveiled. It is scheduled for its first tests later this year as well, with plans to use variations on the platform to potentially go to Mars as well.
The most high profile privately owned space program is SpaceX of course. The company has been making successful rocket launches for several years now, shuttling satellites into orbit and delivering supplies to the International Space Station. It has yet to make any manned flights however, and has suffered a few set backs that has delayed testing of its Dragon II Capsule. But SpaceX founder Elon Musk knows that this is all part of the process and he has made big promises about where the company is headed. He predicts that it will send the first manned mission to the moon by 2023, although there are no plans to actually land on the surface. Instead, the passengers aboard the capsule will make a few orbits around the moon before returning to Earth.
Meanwhile, SpaceX’s biggest competitor is probably Boeing, which is deep in development of its Starliner program. This system consists of a new rocket and manned capsule combination that can carry as many as six passengers, along with cargo, into space. The capsule itself can be reused as many as ten times and can be turned around in under six months. Test for the Starliner are set to take place in 2019 as well, with the hopes of it being pressed into service in Earth orbit starting next year. The company is also developing a rocket platform to carry travelers to the moon, but that system is currently behind schedule, way over budget, and could miss its opportunity to be a part of NASA’s 2024 moonshot.
Finally, we have Blue Origin, another privately owned space program that is backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his billions of dollars. The company is behind SpaceX and Boeing in terms of its development, but it is looking ahead to manned flights already as well. Bezos says that his New Shepard rocket, the first to carry a crew into space, is set to be tested this year and could go into operation in 2020 or 2021 as well, provided those tests go as planned. Blue Origin will follow that with the New Glenn rocket, which will be more powerful and could deliver humans and a payload to the moon. While development on those platforms is lagging behind the competition, progress is being made at a steady pace. Bezos is also committed to making Blue Origin a viable company and is in this for the long haul. He doesn’t care if he is first necessarily as long as BO eventually becomes a player.
For those of us who missed out on the original space race, this second version could be very interesting and fun to watch. The next few years in particular should be eye-opening indeed. Perhaps we may see a viable comical space program in our time that could take civilian passengers –– albeit those with plenty of disposable income –– into orbit and beyond.
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