Space race 2.0

October 16, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

NASA imageI blogged the other day about the 50th anniversary of Sputnik. During the Cold War, it was a two country race to the Moon, Space Race 1.0, but now it seems Earth’s satellite is up for grabs. Like the recent tussle over the North Pole, there are a number of contestants in the latest space race. China, Japan, India and Europe, as well as Russia and the United States are all outlining plans to fling themselves into space and race to the Moon. China says it will set up an outpost on the Moon after 2020 (that is if it can find the Moon through the heavy pollution in China’s air!). And they’ll begin their quest later this year with an unmanned lunar mission.

The Japanese have a head start having launched a $479-million spacecraft toward the moon in September and they hope to be neighbours to the Chinese with their own outpost by 2030. Google and X-Prize Foundation got into the act of course with their offer of US $30 million for privately funded space exploration. India is planning a mission later this year and the Americans are moving forward with the Constellation programme, which will return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and put fresh bootprints on our dusty satellite.

Whilst the Americans may be intent on beating the Chinese to the Moon, I rather suspect that private industry will get there first to check out what use they can make of the minerals and resources and how they can service future outposts. Hey, maybe even Maccas is thinking about how good a set of golden arches would look on the old Tranquility Base site of 1969.

What’s the rush and what’s the attraction? After Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the Moon, space exploration seemed to grow less appealing (been there, done that) and NASA funding dried up. A few trips here and there to Mir, space shuttles now and then, but the 1990s and so far in the 21st Century, space hasn’t exactly been crowded with manned missions.

Bush’s science advisor, John Marburger, kind of gave the game away in a recent speech when he commented that the new vision for space is:

As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we (US) want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere or not

Well, that makes sense. We’ve stuffed up the planet, nearly finished with razing the Amazon to the ground, so we humans do need an offshore target to exploit – let’s go to the Moon! But what on earth is there on the Moon that would be of economic benefit? A form of helium for one thing that could be used for fusion energy although the jury’s out on whether this form of helium can be used back on Earth.

Really it’s the enormous global political advantage: up there on the Moon, having your permanent outpost, glaring down on Earthly citizens, maybe having some weapons of mass destruction along with you (who knows what weaponry will be like in 2020 or 2030) aimed at Earth.

Being cynical, I somewhat doubt that the pursuit of science and knowledge is driving the current space race. Or just the thrill of exploration. I might have this confused but I think it was an Arnie film – Total Recall – that was set on Mars in the late 21st Century and some dude had a monopoly on a depressing slum city full of poor workers who just wanted to escape back to Earth. I think Mars was referred to as the Outworld or Offworld or something like this. This is what I have visions of – if I was to pop back in 150 years’ time – the Moon would be crowded with cities and slums; whatever resources were there have been stripped; solar power stations beam the Sun’s energy back to Earth; the Moon is used as a launching pad for missions on the way to Mars and Jupiter maybe; Earth-bound humans snigger and refer to Lunar colonists as Offworlders; and who knows what evolutionary changes would happen to humans living on a satellite. Tourist spots and hotels will be set up and I can just imagine the tours taking people to the site where Neil Armstrong set his foot in the lunar dust. Here’s one person’s vision of what life on the Moon could be like.

Well, let’s hope that as the various countries race to the Moon and crowd the Earth to Moon corridor, there’s no collision with private citizens who are increasingly seeking a thrill from space travel. Since 2001, Space Adventures has sent five very rich people to the International Space Station. Since we’ll have precious little to visit on this planet because we’ve destroyed Nature, space tourism will take the place of international travel. Virgin Galactic has a pretty swish movie on becoming the world’s first commercial space carrier. View it here. Forget the Chinese and the Americans, I’m placing my bets on Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic to get to the Moon first and rename it Virgin Lunar.

And when we’re all zooming around space, inter-planetary travellers can leave Earth without taking their Visa card – the Quasi Universal Intergalactic Denomination (or Quid) has just been designed. This new currency can withstand the stresses of space travel. There are no sharp edges, chemicals or magnetic chips to annoy space tourists or business people. The Quid has been designed for the foreign exchange company, Travelex, (good ploy: get in early before AMEX!) by scientists from the National Space Centre and the University of Leicester. Here’s a picture of the new Quid – reminds me of one of those old Coca Cola yo-yos. They’re made from polymer (used in non-stick pans) and the different sizes and colours denote different “coin” values. Cool!

Source: BBC News

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Entry filed under: Space.

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