1. Who are the new players?
Since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA, as the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration is better known, had relied on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, which has orbited Earth for two decades. That changed in 2020 when billionaire Elon Musk’s company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, flew its first crewed missions, powered by reusable boosters that dramatically cut launch costs. Boeing Co.’s Starliner, a new capsule for astronauts designed to fly on the existing Atlas rocket, has been undergoing a major software revamp ahead of a planned second uncrewed test flight to the space station that NASA has scheduled for July 30. Depending on the outcome of that flight, Starliner may fly astronauts to the ISS late this year or in 2022.
2. What are they planning?
SpaceX launched the first private resupply run in 2012. What’s changed is that not only SpaceX but also other companies, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, are driving down the cost of reaching space. Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees flew successfully on the company’s first fully crewed flight July 11, reaching the edge of space at a peak altitude of about 53.5 miles (86 kilometers) above the Earth before gliding back to land in New Mexico. On July 20, Bezos reached space in the first crewed flight of his Blue Origin rocket ship. Spacex has a contract to fly an American technology chief executive and three other civilian astronauts late this year in what the company is billing as the first all-civilian spaceflight. In 2022, SpaceX will fly a four-person mission for Axiom Space Inc., which plans a private orbiting space station. Musk’s company also has a deal to take a Japanese billionaire and his guests around the moon as soon as 2023.
3. Which countries are in the race?
China landed a rover on the moon in 2019 and brought back its first lunar samples in December 2020. It also intends to establish a lunar research base with its own astronauts and succeeded in putting a rover on the surface of Mars this year. India plans a further uncrewed moon landing after an attempt failed in 2019 and also has astronauts training for a planned orbital flight aboard an Indian spacecraft, Gaganyaan. The United Arab Emirates flew its first astronaut on a Russian spacecraft in 2019, put a scientific satellite into orbit around Mars in February 2021 and plans to send an uncrewed spacecraft to the moon in 2024. The European Space Agency has probes exploring the solar system and is developing a moon lander.
4. Why back to the moon?
Only Americans have set foot on the moon, and the last visit was almost a half-century ago. Now the U.S. and other nations are interested in returning. That’s because the race to the moon in the 1960s drove leaps in aerospace technology along with innovations such as camera sensors for mobile phones. Advances in science since then mean a return will likely yield new insights into the origins of the moon and the solar system. National pride has motivated the programs, along with a desire to advance the commercialization of space. The U.S. Apollo program that took the first men to the moon in 1969 cost $25.8 billion, or about $260 billion in inflation-adjusted terms, according to the Planetary Society.
5. What would they do there?
Under NASA’s plans to return this decade with the Artemis program, a craft powered by its new Space Launch System rocket would dock at a lunar orbital platform, hosting four-person crews for up to three months. Astronauts would descend from there to the surface, where minerals could be mined and resources tapped to create oxygen, water and rocket propellant. A refueling module would service the space station as well as Mars missions. SpaceX is developing its Starship spacecraft for flights to the moon and beyond. Separately, Blue Origin has its own plans for a base on the moon’s south pole.
6. Why venture out so far?
Deep-space exploration might provide clues to life elsewhere, and insight into how humans could adapt to much harsher environments. Venturing farther into the solar system would drive technologies in areas such as laser communications and radiation shielding. Mars is a priority for NASA and the central goal for Musk, who envisions a self-sustaining city. On Feb. 18, 2021, NASA succeeded in landing a robot rover on the red planet to search for signs of ancient microbial life, about half a century after the first spacecraft touched down there. Earlier the same month, a Chinese spacecraft reached Martian orbit, carrying a rover which descended to the surface of the planet in May. Meanwhile ESA and Japan had a spacecraft en route to Mercury.
7. What are they hoping to find?
Rare minerals are one possibility. Asteroid mining is an idea reflected in science fiction from Jules Verne to Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Japan landed a probe on an asteroid in 2019, and NASA achieved a similar feat in October 2020, scooping up samples. Asteroid mining may have larger scientific benefits than economic ones, making space travel more feasible: Water on asteroids could help produce propellant or be used to address radiation.
8. How is all this driving technology on Earth?
Since 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, satellites have underpinned technologies from phone networks to geolocation and surveillance systems. Now costs are falling further. The U.K. government rescued satellite operator OneWeb from bankruptcy in 2020, enabling it to compete with Musk and Bezos, who aim to launch thousands of small satellites into low-Earth orbit offering faster internet coverage.
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