Everyone remembers the Space Race, the competition between the World’s two greatest powers to outdo one another by pushing the envelope of human endeavor. The names Sputnik, Gagarin, Sheppard, Glen, Armstrong, Apollo, Gemini, Mercury, Vostock, and Mir; now hold a special place in the memory of all mankind. The retirement of the Space shuttle program in 2011 was collectively labeled by a chorus of media talking heads and supposed experts as the death of the space program, not just for America but also for the world. However, those who pessimistically declare that the glory days of exploration are behind us have a selective outlook.
In point of fact the future of space exploration has never been so good. When Yuri Gagarin rode his pod into orbit, many equated it with Columbus crossing the ocean. A more accurate analogy would be that Gagarin had done the same as the first nameless human who had strapped several logs together and floated upon the sea then returned to dry land. Columbus’ expedition used techniques and technologies perfected after more than 6,000 years of recorded sailing. Gagarin, by comparison, had only a century of experience in manned flight to draw upon – and no idea what awaited him in the void beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
To achieve Gagarin’s historic flight, and to go even further by landing on the moon and sending probes to the far reaches of the Solar system, took the concentrated resources of the world’s two dominate nations. The idea of smaller nations or private companies achieving space flight at the time was laughable. Many feared that Space would become the ultimate high ground of the growing cold war. Plans were drawn up for nuclear satellites, and military installations on the moon, however this never came to pass, due in part to the limits of technology at the time and also due to the ratification of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which established Low Earth Orbit and the Moon as a WMD free zone.
Space would remain a frontier to be explored and colonized in the coming decades- not militarized. Since the Outer Space Treaty and the Apollo Soyuz docking of 1975 the space race has ended and governments have turned their concerns to more terrestrial affairs. The end of competition has opened the door to increased cooperation allowing space exploration to become a platform by which nations are able to build diplomatic bridges. The Space Shuttles missions where the first step by taking non-American astronauts into orbit. This cooperation culminated with the International Space Station, a billion dollar structure the size of a three bedroom house – mankinds vacation home in the sky.
Today the notion of governments asserting the primary role in space seems more remote. Though most nations now have some kind of space program, only China has launched a domestically built manned capsule, though Europe, India, and Japan are all working on their own domestic manned launch capability or exploring the possibility of contracting aerospace companies to handle there manned flights. Most scientific exploration can be done via remote control with probes that can spend decades in space or on the surface of alien worlds beaming back data to scientists on the ground. That does not mean the age of manned space flight is coming to an end- far from it. Rather the commercial applications of space are only now beginning to be realized.
As distasteful as the idea of capitalism driving human exploration is to those idealists who think exploration should be for the benefit of all mankind, we must remember that Columbus sailed to the new world not for scientific knowledge but for gold and glory. Just as Jamestown, the first sustained European colony in North America was started as a joint stock company, the new private Aerospace companies SpaceX, Sera Nevada, Bigelow, and Virgin Galactic; can now accomplish for millions of dollars what previously only governments could for billions. The next few decades mankind will witness space becoming a place that is far easier to reach and capitalize upon.
Domestically Governments should encourage this, and internationally they should cooperate. The United States needs to reach out to China on Space cooperation in order to build diplomatic bridges. Moreover, just as was done with the Soviet Union in years past, the US should be more open as to its military ambitions for space the Air Forces X-37 space craft is a source of international concern. The US as the World Leader in space should – as it has in terrestrial affairs – secure a position as the orbital rule enforcer. More over the US should be the first to revisit the OST of 1967 and amended it to make Space a official DMZ. Mankind’s future, after all, lies not on the ground or even in the light of this sun, but among those distant points of light we can just now begin to fathom reaching.
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