Fact

Mars, the Moon, Lasers, Oh My!

The space race continues to develop in interesting ways, all of which have been considered in science fiction, but not together, as appears to be happening now. We seem to have three strategies being employed by the main players (China, U.S.A., Space X, Virgin Galactic) each concentrating on a different aspect of space development. It could also be considered that several are developing their niches as a way to counter the others. Here’s how it appears to be playing out so far.

Corporate Interests

Virgin Galactic

Low Earth Orbit Space Tourism Prototype

Virgin Galactic has always been the most money-oriented of the players with, arguably, the shortest-term view of their space plan. Intent purely on making money from space tourism, they appear to have the view that colonization to any serious degree will require centuries and thus will be out of reach for the majority of the planet for that time. So, instead, they’ve chosen to concentrate their efforts on space tourism which, in the present form (and that of the foreseeable future, as I’ll explain) would mean trips to near-Earth orbit with the eventual possibility of an orbital restaurant or hotel.

SpaceX

SpaceX prototype ‘hopper’ rocket.

Instead, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has always had long-term goals. Once they demonstrated that a corporation could develop rockets to travel into space, they began earning their keep by renting said rockets to national interests (at an estimated $12 billion annually) while turning their sights on Elon’s dream of space colonization. Wisely, SpaceX has set their target as the colonization of Mars.

The foresight in Destination Mars has become apparent in the closing days of 2018 and the opening of 2019. Earth orbit and the moon are about to get very political. By choosing a target well outside the current scope of political influence, SpaceX buys themselves time to develop their Mars colony relatively free from influence, as the Earth-based powers begin their fight for the moon. That being said, they will have to hurry, as China has announced an interest in developing Mars once their moon base is up. That probably gives SpaceX a few decades head-start.

The weakness of SpaceX will be their supply chain, which could be interfered with by political interests either from the main space players, or the U.N. itself. They would probably be wise to secure launch sites in areas of the world where this could be minimized.

National Interests

China

Due to immense news coverage, it’s impossible not to have seen the news of China’s landing on the far side of the moon with their Chang’e-4 lander. Not only have they put a satellite in orbit of the moon to allow communications with their lander (which will be out of radio contact with Earth otherwise) they have recently demonstrated the ability to grow plants while on the moon.

Chang’e communication system. Image from The Planetary Society.

While a base on the moon’s far side does offer wonderous scientific opportunities and being free from light and atmospheric pollution half it’s rotation means an unparalleled opportunity to view deep space, other possible motives can’t help but enter consideration. The most obvious of which is that Chinese moon development is now hidden from Earth-based observation. This means China now has an almost completely unchallenged opportunity to develop their base on the moon for whatever purposes they desire — whether as a research station, a colonial expansion, a stepping stone to colonization of the solar system, or a military base to secure the Earth. At the moment, the only possible challenger, it appears, might be India, a rapidly developing country that appears to have an interest in the moon. However, India is not known as a country that rocks the boat and it’s unlikely they would challenge any claim China makes to the moon.

Interestingly, while the name Chang’e is a Chinese goddess of the moon, it can hardly escape one’s attention to realize there could be a dig at the U.S. with the Anglicized pronunciation ‘Change’

The United States of America

Finally, we come to the country that, arguably, started the space race (I’m not meaning to belittle Russia’s contribution in any way, but not only are they not currently a contender, but the ‘race’ aspect of ‘space race’ was formally announced by the American president J.F.K.). Once the forerunner, and the only country to have landed humans on another celestial body, the Americans have seemed content to sit back and let the world play catch-up for the last forty years. Instead, they developed and then abandoned reusable vehicles while posturing about colonizing either the moon or Mars several times in the last few decades. For whatever reason (probably a combination of financial + lack of desire by population), the Americans Dream seems firmly fixed, eye’s wide shut, on the Earth. The latest response to the race orchestrated by the new players in the game has been to suggest a return to a Reagan-like satellite defence program.

Artisitic redering of a space-based defense system, straight out of the 1980”s

Even in the 1980’s there were large, fundamental problems with a satellite defence system. Now that foreign and corporate interests have set their sight firmly on space, the flaws in applying such a system are immense. It’s a true lack of vision on the part of the U.S. to consider a satellite defence system to be anything short of a laughable response to the changing nature of space.

What’s Ahead?

All of this leads us with a very interesting time for the space race over the next few decades. Many of us have been saying China was going to be the country to first develop space. Although, I think even we didn’t foresee the rise of corporations as serious contenders. One thing that has been obvious for a long time to anyone interested in seeing it, is that the first group to develop space will have access to untold riches. Not just in the obvious physical resources such as minerals and gases, but they will set themselves up as the gatekeeper to a new, vast, wonderful frontier that large amounts of the human population would love the opportunity to develop with them.

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