A tale of two superpowers
by Vittorio Compagno
Space has always been an object of desire for people. In the past, we could look up, see it, but not reach it. For thousands of years great minds wondered what secrets might lie yonder. A stage for the stars, the moon, and the sun to dance about Earth? Or a map that corresponded to life cycles and patterns on Earth, giving rise to the idea of constellations.
Whether we glance at our distant past or our future, it is space that we see. Trillions of stars shining into the void, some born thousands of years ago, some already dead since the last mass extinction. And while observing the universe we realize the scale of humanity pales besides even the smallest spatial objects. Asteroids as large as Europe, planets as massive as a thousand earths stacked together even in our own Solar System, stars 100 times more massive than our own, all of that, and more, is space.
Human curiosity has engendered an innate desire for space exploration. We’re not scared of visiting other worlds, mining asteroids, or living semi-permanently on space stations, even if it’s going to be onerous. We actually seem attracted to it. Space fuels dreams of greatness and exploring it ought to be the ultimate goal for humanity if we want to survive the challenges that Earth will have to face in the next million years. Trying to dominate parts of it to everyone’s detriment is not the right way to do that though.
That’s one of the reasons why in 1967 the United Nations signed the “Outer Space Treaties”: a list of rules that prevent nations from owning spatial objects (for example the Moon). The reasoning behind those treaties is that world leaders, in the heat of the Cold War, anticipated the worst.
In 1957 the USSR reached a milestone in space exploration, launching the first object in orbit. They unnerved the NATO alliance by showing what could be done with a technology that none had developed successfully before: space rockets.
After that, what was clear is that nations that reach milestones in space exploration do so in front of all humanity, demonstrating a strong economy and the most advanced technology.
But not only that. Space is no one’s land. The vast nebulas where stars are born, the rogue planets wandering alone in the universe, the supermassive black holes answer to no political power. They dwarf every issue of humanity, but at the same time are, for humans, an enormous stage. Bringing a rocket into orbit, sending a rover to another planet, or just broadcasting a radio message to aliens, all of that allows a nation to be the main character in its own play where the public is the whole world.
Fueled by their dream of greatness in the aftermath of the Second World War, the two most powerful countries at the time, the United States of America and the USSR became involved in a space race.
The USSR had accomplished more by the time the United States realized that action was due. The first manned launch in orbit in 1961 by the Soviet Union embarrassed the American presidency, who was also facing the Bay of Pigs failure. The USA had to do something.
On September 12th, 1962 John F. Kennedy spoke the now famous words “We choose to go to the moon,” giving common purpose to a society.
The Cold War prodded the USA to go to the moon as the technological advancements in space rocketry and technology made by the Soviet Union were approaching an astonishing level. Despite that, Kennedy raised the stake insisting the moon was the ultimate goal of the space race. Project Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo allowed the USA to keep up in the race.
Seven years later, after numerous sacrifices, the United States kept its promise to land on Earth’s satellite, declaring itself as the dominant superpower in front of the world. This wasn’t just about economic or political power, there was more at stake, namely technological supremacy for 50 years to come.
In the numerous attempts of developing the tech to go to the Moon, NASA and ROSCOSMOS, the Russian space agency, made a series of world-changing discoveries. Their effort brought to life such technologies as led lights, water purification systems, home insulation, wireless headsets, memory foam, and more.
Society benefits from space exploration as it drives us forward, but the governments of both sides, after the moon landing, seemed not to care anymore.
After 1966, NASA’s budget went from a peak of 4.4% of the U.S federal budget to a mere 0.48% today (being 2.31% the year of the Moon landing).
Today, like yesterday, we face the dawn of a new space race, driven by the promise of a new Cold War. In the Third Millennium, the paradigms of power have shifted. The USSR, dissolved in 1991, has been replaced in its role of the “adversary” of the western world by China, and the USA is a different global superpower than it was in the 60s. The lack of charismatic and visionary men in the political field like Kennedy represent a decline that the USA has faced for decades. On the other side, China’s “one-party one system” idea challenges the western’s world concept of democracy, showing incredible success from economic and technological perspectives. There’s also a new dichotomy: the juxtaposition of private and public-funded space exploration. While the Chinese government manages everything from research to rocket launches, in the USA there’s a different situation. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin pave the way for NASA, while the national agency, although invested in research, delegates exploration to the aforementioned companies, providing expertise and funds. A challenge between private versus public, capitalism versus statism, between a decaying superpower and a rising nation that seems unstoppable. This challenge is destined to change the century to come.
Now humans aim for Mars.
Mars, more than the Moon, is an arid land that once had running water on it. Rovers have been sent there, but the ultimate step that will start martian colonization is a human foot on the surface of the red planet.
Imagine what technologies will come out of the space race to Mars.
Will we learn how to use rocket fuel as efficiently as possible? Will we master fusion? Will we discover a way to solve climate change? What has been accomplished during the first space race is about to get completely overtaken by what’s to come.
Mars is a greater challenge for humanity. The technologies and the expertise needed to get there are more complex than the ones required to go to the Moon.
In the geopolitical scenario there could be another actor to the run to Mars: Europe.
But what is the role of Europe? The EU could tip the balance, which is a the third option. While there are significant gains to had in the technological and economic fields, the European Union is not as invested in space exploration as the USA and China. What European nations seem concerned about is what side to take, ignoring that a space program would inspire their population as much as it did in the USA during the 60s. Maybe, if European leaders were more invested in space exploration, the EU could see what it has always wanted to accomplish: an ideological union of nations under a common purpose. Despite all of that, nothing prevents us from hoping for the future: Europe could potentially change the balance of power.
Hopefully, someday the European Parliament will realize as much as the other superpowers, what will be the next purpose of humanity, to become an interplanetary species. This goal goes through Mars.
There’s so much at stake right now. What will happen in the next two decades will shape the world as we know. The new space race has already started, as much as a new subtle Cold War. Little is certain in these times, but one thing is sure: whoever puts their foot on Mars will pave the way for others to follow in the next century.