Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Many Contestants in Latest 'Space Race' to the Moon

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Many Contestants in Latest 'Space Race' to the Moon

Article excerpt

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 close by.

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. The effort would build on a series of unmanned lunar missions, beginning with a robotic orbiter China is preparing to launch this fall. Earlier in 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 Joan Johnson- 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 outposts.

Still, Dr. Johnson-Freese adds, "there certainly is the perception of a race between the US and China" as well as a perception of a race within Asia.

Part of that perception is a question of timing, suggests George Whitesides, who heads the National Space Society, a space- exploration advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

"We find ourselves unexpectedly in a time where virtually all of the space powers are sending probes to the moon," he says.

Bush's speech was a trigger

The mini-moon rush has several triggers, he adds. President Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration has served as the major prod. Moreover, the moon is a good place to stretch technological muscles for fledgling space programs trying to develop skills in robotic space exploration. …

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