The future of space: Collaboration or competition?

Space Race
iStock/RomoloTavani

The Space Race has now been consigned to history: a well-documented, 20th century competition between two superpowers for dominance in spaceflight and global recognition.

Having launched the world’s first satellite (Sputnik 1), the Soviet Union was pioneering the journey into space and the race to dominate this battleground fuelled a fierce competition. Indeed, history was made when both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first stepped onto the moon on July 21st, 1969. Such a landmark was achieved and positioned NASA as internationally dominant.

Now after recently reaching its 50th anniversary, the original race has long since cooled and sights are now firmly set on next space ‘frontier’. The question is now: what, or where, is next and how will humankind get there? Will it be through government or private investment and will it be because of international collaboration or increased competition?

Today, the race has changed, technology has evolved and, as of now, four countries have succeeded in landing on the moon – USA, Russia, China and India. Countries are still pushing boundaries; early on in 2019, a Chinese spacecraft historically became the first to touch down on the dark side of the moon. This shows continued international investment in the space venture, which is still well and truly alive. Moreover, the race has proliferated from the predominantly governmental remit into the private business sector. In both the government and business sectors it seems that competition continues to propel humankind’s exploration into space, with companies anticipating the commercialisation of future spaceflight and governments looking to showcase international prowess. However, elements of collaboration have also continued to appear in the space venture.

Commercial space travel and the rise of the private sector

Commercial space travel has become something of a new private race, with a number of organisations developing heavy lift vehicles (rockets designed to send people into orbit). While initial efforts were focused on space tourism, private firms have helped the field to accomplish several firsts, including successfully returning the rocket stages to earth for reuse and the delivery of material to the International Space Station (ISS) with a non-government designed capsule.

Moreover, one of these companies, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is building a rocket and capsule to be used by NASA competing against aircraft giant, Boeing. Interestingly, there has been a split in aim from the private sector with some companies working towards landing on Mars, while others are aiming towards commercial moon landings. Here, competition drives innovation, as company rivalry encourages boundary pushing and corporate investment which, in turn, furthers overall aerospace developments.

International collaboration in space

Looking to the next frontier, the USA started work on the ISS and Space Shuttle programmes. The ISS would become one of the first collaborations in space, with Europe (through the European Space Agency) developing components along with Canada and Japan. The ISS has since hosted astronauts from many countries. As of today, 10 nations have sent crew to the ISS: United States, Russia, Japan, Italy, Canada, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. With Russia providing the lift capability to take astronauts to the station, after the retirement of the Space Shuttle.

After Apollo 11, space travel and indeed technological innovation became a somewhat collective effort. However, as this was taking place, China and India were developing their own space programmes, including landing probes on the moon, showing continued elements of isolationism in space exploration alongside ISS collaboration.

Governmental prowess and space competition

Whether there will be collaboration between countries to explore space is a complicated matter, given the current political climate. Today, competition between countries is expanding and there are constant economic confrontations, which will likely limit cooperation for the near future. Additionally, the sharing of technology between nations seems to be declining rather than expanding, which is an essential for space collaboration to result in progress. Continuing technology advances will likely see more individual nations and companies competing in space. Moreover, with the USA talking about a Space Force and Ant-Satellite systems being used in space by China, one must consider the implications of the militarisation of space. A drive for overall dominance and control, indicative of the original landing.

In light of this, isolationism is likely to drive the future of space travel. Indeed, countries will continue to work alone using space to demonstrate their technical competence. Additionally, commercial space companies will continue forward, with and without, government contracts, developing their capabilities and the vision of their company’s leaders. It is likely that the moon, and possibly Mars, will be treated like Antarctica, with governments staking out areas for research and resources. This will more than likely be joined by companies setting up commercial operations like mining and tourism. The question now is: can we reach a point where the frictions on earth will not be transferred to space?

 

Paul Kostek

Senior member

IEEE

Advisory systems engineer

Base2 Solutions

contactcenter@ieee.org

Tweet @IEEEorg

https://www.ieee.org/

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