Humanity achieved the goal of walking on the moon decades ago, but our current space race extends much further.
Once the domain of national scientific organisations, space exploration has recently become part of the commercial realm. Huge innovative companies are fighting to become the first to put men on Mars.
The big questions are: Who will reach the finish line first, and just how much is at stake?
Let’s start at the start, with the initial space race. Following the tensions of the second world war, the United States and the USSR entered a decades-long race to launch humans into space…and then get them back to Earth safely.
The space race was a show of sovereign strength, as it was assumed that the first country to land on the Moon would lay claim to it – “In the United States, space was seen as the next frontier, a logical extension of the grand American tradition of exploration, and it was crucial not to lose too much ground to the Soviets”. If you want to find out who currently owns the Moon, check out this explainer.
SPOILER: It isn’t the United States.
The US-manned Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20 1969, and was followed by six more Apollo missions by the end of 1972. The now-infamous landing and phrase “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” signalled the end of the space race, and the beginning of an exploratory era.
Who are the main players in space exploration?
There are four main players who are aiming to conquer the space era. Three of these players are companies – SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin – and the fourth body is NASA. All four parties recognise that Mars is humanity’s most likely next frontier and are all taking different steps to get there.
SpaceX is the brainchild of Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla. Musk is widely heralded as a visionary, and has not kept his plans to get humans on Mars by 2022 a secret.
His first goal is making space travel affordable and economical and, to that end, he’s planning to send two (INCREDIBLY WEALTHY) tourists into space to orbit the Moon in 2018. To give you a bit of an idea, the first price estimates for a trip to Mars were $10 billion, so Musk has a way to go until he can make the process affordable.
His second goal of establishing a civilisation on the Red Planet is where things get a little bit trickier, because the atmosphere on Mars isn’t conducive to healthy human life…unless we made some adjustments.
Virgin Airlines are expanding their repertoire, although many critics think they should stick with their expertise of “cheap but serviceable” airline carrier.
Virgin Galactic is the underdog of the modern space explorers, with their offering of the SpaceShipTwo.
As reported by Wired, Virgin Galactic’s focus is on democratising access to space. Will Pomerantz, Vice President of Special Projects at Virgin Galactic explained that “The total number of human beings who have ever been to space as of today is 552.” So far, Virgin Galactic already has 800 people signed up, but even Virgin Galactic’s tickets are $250,000 so they aren’t exactly democratically accessible.
Blue Origin is Jeff Bezos’ entry into the space race. And it’s a very costly exercise for Bezos, who has reportedly sold billions of his Amazon stock to fund his project.
The New Glenn rocket is named in honour of American astronaut, John Glenn. He was a pioneering member of the space community and holds the record for the oldest person to visit space.
— Corey S. Powell (@coreyspowell) December 8, 2016
Who will get there first?
My money – which is nowhere near enough money to buy a ticket to Mars – is on SpaceX. Although Elon Musk’s plans seem extraordinarily unreachable, he’s the closest anyone has ever come to genuinely established a secondary human colonisation. It certainly isn’t going to be an easy trip, but it looks to be the most well-planned trip.
When I spoke to the ex-Commander of the International Space Station, Terry Virts, last year I asked him whether he thought Musk’s plans for SpaceX were viable.
He said this:
“It’s a hard problem, to get that far with a lot of mass, with food, water, air, people, and to then bring them back. But I think it’s doable. Anyway, I’m a fan. I don’t know if Elon’s plan is gonna work or not, but I certainly applaud him for trying. There’s not a lot of people who are willing to spell out a specific architecture and plan, and that’s what he did. I really applaud him for that.
Everyone will say we’re going to Mars, but no-one has a plan. It’ll be interesting to see what the next few steps are.”
In time, the plans to settle on Mars will become more established and we’ll start sending real live humans off to scope out the planet. Eventually we’ll colonise the Red Planet, and there are plenty of people who will be watching every single step.