The Landscape of Space Exploration

In a world where science and technology advance at a breathtaking rhythm, it is interesting to think that almost 55 years after the beginning of space exploration and the launch of Sputnik 1 (the first artificial satellite) we are still amazed when an object is launched into space. Although much more has been accomplished in a fraction of a century than throughout the entire mankind existence, space remains very far from our daily reality. That is why movies like Gravity are able to make us dream so much.

The space race that started in the 1950’s, opposing Russia (by then, the Soviet Union) and the United States, is now dead. Russia launched the first satellite, put the first man in space, lost the race to have the first flag (and man) up on the Moon, and won again when it put men for the first time on a space station. If in 1976, the United States were able to land with a rover on Mars, Mars exploration was halted for a long time, despite a surge in space exploration during the early years of 2000. (check out this nice chronology by the National Geographic!) Although the Hubble telescope allows us to see the immense possibilities that are just beyond us, we still do not possess the knowledge to go further than we have so far.

For now, the exploration of Mars is the ultimate frontier and it is giving place to a new space race. Where before only the United States, Russia and to a certain extent, Europe, had been able to go, China and India want to go too: the orbit of Mars. Tomorrow, India launches its first mission to Mars, competing with the failed Chinese mission of 2011. If before big Agencies such as NASA, RFSA or the ESA used to have an absolute hegemony over this domain, more and more private actors (even individuals) start to invest in spatial research.

During the Cold War the space race was not only made for the sake of scientific advancement, but mainly as a means to display power and conquering new “territories”. India and China definitely want to enter the exclusive group of nations with spatial power. Nevertheless, as a very interesting article points out, this new “race” has mainly to do with economic interests. Indeed, Indians could profit from it by encouraging research and some “brain drain” from other countries. Plus, many still believe that a lot of richness can come from space. However, India is being criticized for its space program, that costs a non-negligent part of the budget of a country that has two thirds of its populations living with less than $2 per day. If the country is ready to do this investment it is because it believes that its economic benefits can be immense.

Finally, one must not forget the smaller actors that are now trying to conquer space, like Richard Branson. With Virgin Galactic, Branson expects to take people to space, in a sort of “spatial tourism”. The landscape of spatial exploration and its actors, are definitely changing.

All this just made us think: do we really want to explore more or are we looking for more to exploit?

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