When the Soviet Union launched a basketball-size satellite 50 years ago this week, it touched off a race for space that became a hallmark of the cold war. It was a two-player game with high technological and geopolitical stakes. It led to the US Apollo program, which placed the first humans on the moon. And it led to the Soviet Union's Mir program, which yielded Earth's first long-duration manned space station.Half a century later, the world appears to be on the verge of Space Race Version 2.0. The objective: the moon. China, Japan, India, and Europe, as well as Russia and the United States, have either placed themselves at the starting line or are hovering closeby.At a global conference on space exploration in Hyderabad, India, last week, for instance, China reiterated its intent to set up an outpost on the moon after 2020.
would build on a series of unmanned lunar missions, beginning with a
robotic orbiter China is preparing to launch this fall.
September, Japan launched a lunar orbiter, and its space agency has
announced a goal of sending astronauts to the moon by 2020 and building
a lunar outpost by 2030. And India is getting set to launch a mission
next year. Meanwhile, the US is pressing ahead with its Constellation
program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. Some
analysts caution that many of these are plans without budgets yet, and
thus talk of a space race is premature.
"Only poets write
strategies without budgets," says JoanJohnson-Freese, a specialist on
China's space program. "There's a difference between conceptual
discussions and programs that are adequately funded to carry them out."
As if to underscore the
point, last month NASA administrator Michael Griffen acknowledged that
China may beat the US back to the moon. Americans won't be thrilled
about that, he noted, "but they will just have to not like it."
Others suggest that with
the advent of the X Prize's $30 million purse for the first team to
land a working rover on the moon, space races in the geopolitical sense
will become increasingly obsolete or irrelevant as private industries
find ways to make use of the moon's resources or service future lunar
Still, Dr. Johnson-Freese
adds, "there certainly is the perception of a race between the US and
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