Humans exploring Mars and other nearby planets, ferried by spaceships and accommodated in floating hotels. Habitats orbiting the earth, as well as 10-minute flights from one side of the planet to the other.
These are just a few of the ideas that today’s class of billionaire space explorers have envisioned.
Depictions that once drew ridicule or indifference because they seemed absurd are becoming a reality, with ideas from Isaac Asimov and Gerard K. O’Neill shaping the future, and present, of space flight and exploration.
In the past decade alone, there has been an unprecedented wave of new space activity.
The interstellar Cold War
In the modern era, contests between world powers have often played out in the final frontier — outer space. And with these moves from the planet’s most powerful governments, there are certainly echoes of the past Cold War contests between the Soviet Union and the United States. But how does the advent of private ventures change the game — and will they determine who will control space?
While the United States has become by far the dominant force in space, there’s actually a long history of international space laws and treaties that began over 100 years ago. As early as 1919, nations agreed that a country’s airspace was merely the area directly above its territory. When the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, it violated this agreement. But President Dwight Eisenhower — knowing that the United States was interested in placing spy satellites above the Soviet Union — didn’t raise any concerns.
A decade later — around the same time the United States was setting its eyes on the moon — the United Nations agreed to an “Outer Space Treaty.” Signed in 1967, the agreement opens “the moon and other celestial bodies” to the benefit of all nations — and defines them as “the province of all mankind.”
Likewise, the treaty says that celestial bodies can only be used for peaceful purposes — meaning that no weapons of mass destruction are allowed in outer space.
Governments are also responsible for managing their national activities in space, whether carried out by official entities or private companies. And according to the agreement, each nation continues to have jurisdiction over all their objects and citizens in space. As of right now, 111 countries, including all of the spacefaring powers, have signed the agreement.
But as we’ve already seen, numerous world powers are actively pushing the limits of this treaty, with Russia’s anti-satellite missile and China’s globe-circling warhead standing as two clear examples.
However, China’s recent test isn’t the only problem on the horizon. The main rival of the U.S. is also seeking to make a stake on the moon, while also investing heavily in space weapons.
China has landed four spacecraft on the moon, with one rover actively exploring the surface over the past two years.
In a June 2020 article, a U.S. intelligence officer wrote that although current missions are peaceful, China views space as “a military domain” and seeks “to secure both economic and military advantages.”
She added that China has developed anti-satellite and electronic warfare capabilities that can be activated from earth or space. In 2018, the Chinese military launched units that would train soldiers in directing anti-satellite missiles.
Recognizing this threat, President Trump established the United States Space Force in February 2019 as a sixth branch of the American military. He noted the reality of America’s adversaries advancing their space capabilities and “actively developing ways” to deny America’s use of space “in a crisis or conflict.”
In July 2021 the Defense Department’s first head of space operations took a trip to Europe in an attempt to encourage allies like Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands to develop their own space military units, along the lines of France, Britain, and Germany.
He explicitly said China and Russia’s recent actions are “designed to deny our access to space.”
The current White House, however, doesn’t seem to take the current space race — or threat — very seriously. When White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether Biden planned to keep the Space Force intact, for example, her sarcastic response indicated that she didn’t even know who ran the organization.
China aims for the moon
But while parts of the government might be asleep at the wheel, China is aiming for the moon — like the United States once did six decades ago.
In December 2020, the Chang’e-5 landed on earth after collecting 4.4 pounds of lunar rocks — continuing research started by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
And now, China is developing new launch vehicles and a new spacecraft that can send astronauts to the moon, with the intent to set foot on the lunar surface in less than ten years.
Again echoing the Cold War era, Russia and China are teaming up to complete several joint missions — including a robotic voyage to an asteroid in 2024 and the creation of a research base on the lunar south pole by 2030. Russia’s own moon program, Luna — a callback to the Soviet program of the same name — was supposed to launch in 2021, but was pushed to May 2022 due to technical difficulties.
Once again, this sets up China and the United States for more competition. Vice President Mike Pence said in 2019 that U.S. astronauts would be launched “by American rockets, from American soil” by the year 2024 through the Artemis mission — although that goal was more recently moved to 2025. Pence also hinted that the lunar south pole held “great scientific, economic, and strategic value” — and added that part of the mission would be putting the first woman and first “person of color” on the moon.
The role of private industry in the battle for space
Unlike former lunar endeavors, private firms will play a sizable role in the astronauts’ mission. NASA gave SpaceX nearly $3 billion to create a “human landing system” for their final leg of the journey to the surface of the moon. The technology will include a fully reusable launch and landing system that can work alongside the Gateway outpost, which will orbit the moon and support long-term human returns to the lunar surface.
But since its inception, SpaceX has always had its eyes on a far loftier target — Mars.
Right now, Elon Musk and his company are testing the Starship rocket — which will be able to carry over 100 metric tons to space. SpaceX plans to one day launch Starship into low-earth orbit and refuel the vessel before it continues the long journey to Mars. By 2050, Musk wants to build a city of glass domes before eventually terraforming Mars to support life — all a part of mankind’s journey to becoming a “multi-planet civilization.”
The billionaire space race
SpaceX — the company founded by Elon Musk — has conducted over one hundred launches, including some manned missions. Blue Origin, the company created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has had several successful test flights, including one with Bezos on board. Virgin Galactic has also had a successful test flight with its founder, Richard Branson.
SpaceX, the most prolific private spacefaring company, has driven a push toward cutting costs through reusable rockets capable of landing themselves. Since its inception, SpaceX has conducted over 130 launches, with several of the rockets used on multiple missions — one rocket, for example, has flown ten times.
Most notably, the NASA astronauts who became the first to launch from American soil in nearly a decade traveled on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, alongside a separate private, non-professional crew.
The prospect of space tourism has also gained steam in recent months with activity from Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
In July 2021, Virgin Galactic carried a small crew of civilians — including company founder Richard Branson — fifty-three miles above the earth on a rocket-powered plane. By a margin of only a few days, Branson edged out Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin mission to win the first battle in the “billionaire space race.”
The mission from Bezos and Blue Origin traveled about 13 miles higher into space for a 10-minute flight. Bezos was joined by his brother, Mark, as well as an 82-year old and an 18-year old — the oldest and youngest people to ever go to space. That was, of course, until the next Blue Origin flight carried William Shatner — the star of the original Star Trek TV series as Captain Kirk — to space.
All of this activity means that there has been a massive flow of capital into the private space industry. According to one report, space ventures have seen nearly a quarter trillion dollars of investment in the last decade alone. But in addition to private companies, foreign powers are ramping up too.
Russia and China compete for control of space
For example, Russia was widely condemned when it fired a missile at one of its old satellites in November, creating a dangerous debris field in low-earth orbit.
Researchers have estimated that the real-world debris will threaten other satellites and spacecraft for years to come. Elon Musk said that his company’s Starlink satellites have already had to adjust course to dodge the wreckage, which is traveling at 10 times the speed of a bullet.
Months earlier, the Chinese government launched a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the earth before zoning in on its target — with some lawmakers arguing that American technology was used to get the vehicle into low-earth orbit.
In response, the United States government is moving to counter this threat. NASA reportedly plans to launch its massive Space Launch System rocket soon, after several delays. The spacecraft stands an incredible 322 feet tall, 138 feet taller than the Space Shuttle.
The U.S. Space Force also recently granted SpaceX permission to launch military satellites.
As competitors old and new, public and private, Eastern and Western, vye for control of space, it is clear that mankind will continue to lift its gaze to the stars.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.