Author: Akshat Kashyap
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, the famous words uttered on July 19th, 1969 by Neil Armstrong when he became the first man ever to step on moon. This year marks the 50th anniversary since the historic event, and the progress made in space exploration has been unprecedented.
What began as a show of one-upmanship during the cold war culminated with Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, which inspired and paved the way for a spurt of human space exploration and advancement. From the competition to establish power among other countries, it graduated into a competition to find the best answers to go beyond the moon.
In the early 1960’s, Soviet Union had the upper hand in the quest to dominate space, as evident by several successful missions, such as the launching of first artificial satellite – Sputnik I, in the lower orbit of Earth, followed by a series of unmanned lunar missions as well as a successful attempt of sending a man, Yuri Gagarin, into space for the first time in human history. However, through all these celestial achievements, the US was preparing for something extraordinary, a manned lunar mission that would go on to be a watershed moment in the history of international space sector.
50 years later, not only the US and Soviet Union, but several dozen countries have made huge strides to satisfy the curiosity of what lies beyond the skies. 72 countries have formed government space agencies, of which 14 agencies have launch capabilities. Six government space agencies of the US, Russia, Japan, India, China and Europe have full launch capabilities. The achievements of India’s ISRO have been lauded worldwide with several missions, such as launching a record breaking 104 satellites from a single rocket, its Chandrayan mission which was able to discover traces of water on the moon, and the success of Mars Orbiter Mission, in which India was able to send a space probe to Mars on its maiden attempt. Several space agencies, by teaming up together, have been successful in creating a habitable artificial satellite- International Space Station- where the astronauts live and explore more about the living and working in space.
But what truly shows the possibilities and opportunities in this sector is the enthusiastic participation of private entrepreneurs, including the three most recognizable billionaires on the planet- Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson. Bezos established Blue Origin in 2000, Musk setup SpaceX in 2002 and Branson established Virgin Galactic in 2004. Iain Boyd, a space exploration expert and professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, says while the three billionaires are each very different, they were likely inspired by a similar frustration. He says in the years and decades after the Apollo missions, with the limited success of the space shuttle programme and fewer funds being awarded to Nasa, there was a sense of an opportunity being wasted. As a result, it was natural that the entrepreneurs such as Musk, Bezos and Branson would seek to fill the gap.
The ambition of these entrepreneurs is grand. Branson’s current project seeks to send six passengers and two crew to the edge of space, about 100km above the earth, by means of a two aircraft. Bezos’s current plan involves using reusable rockets to send a crew in a capsule to an altitude of 307,000 feet. The rocket returns to its launch pad, and the crew capsule separates and descends by use of parachutes.
In many ways, Musk’s plans are the most ambitious. While his SpaceX rockets are already restocking the international space station, again with reusable rockets, the South African-born entrepreneur also wants to send people to Mars. He has said his project could be ready to send people to the Red Planet – a vast undertaking that many scientists are skeptical about – as soon as 2026.
However, such projects, private and government, throw up new challenges, not just for technology and science but areas such as law. Right now, there are no rules governing space travel. Also, the Outer Space Treaty, a UN resolution first adopted in 1967 that prohibits the placing of nuclear weapons in space, is similarly lacking in detail.
There are also questions as to what impact the rush to reach other planets will have on our own. Some have said that by suggesting humanity can reach places such as Mars, there will be less incentive to address the pressing crisis posed by climate change.
But, no matter what consequences we face, there are still a lot of possibilities that have to be explored if the human population is to survive beyond Earth, as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky said, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever”.