On Monday, NASA announced the discovery of an Earth-like planet in the Kepler solar system that could possibly sustain life. Weeks prior, China announced the successful docking of its manned Shenzhou 8 craft with the recently-launched unmanned space laboratory Tiangong 1. As space travel captured the imaginations of people everywhere, Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey associate professor James Clay Moltz warned in the December 7th issue of Nature that Asia is in the midst of a space race that could turn into a geopolitical arms race.
However, Moltz should remember that the Cold War space race between the U.S. and Soviet Union resulted in moon landings, space stations, orbiting satellites, and a whole host of new technology. While space travel has become less of a national priority for the U.S. and Russia in subsequent decades, a new wave of corporate and governmental competition for space travel has emerged in recent years. Between the growing space race in Asia and trends towards privatized space travel in the U.S., the world is on the verge of new age of space exploration and technological advancement that will get us closer to travelling to Earth-like planets like Kepler-22b.
Unlike Europe and the U.S., Asian countries have not fully cooperated in developing their own space programs. How much China spends on its space program or the confirmed names of the Chinese "taikonauts" who have travelled into space is unknown. However, if trends hold, China's launch rate is set to surpass the U.S. and the country will have its own manned space station by 2020.
But it's not just China making advances in space travel. Japan and India are developing their own programs to explore the moon and launch crews into space. Other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan are collaborating through the China-led Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation or the Japan-led Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum to develop their own programs. Many of these national space programs are focused on developing rockets to launch satellites into space, but could eventually lead to manned spaceflight.
With the end of space shuttle program, NASA has shifted to focus on helping private companies develop their own space programs. NASA has released rules about how private "space taxis" could qualify to dock with the International Space Station, and just announced on Friday that SpaceX will have the first privately-built spacecraft to do so next February. Companies like Virgin Galactic and Boeing will also compete to develop affordable space transportation options and lay the groundwork for future space logistics and tourism industries. There are also competitions like Google's Lunar X that offer prizes to competing space travel start-ups like Space IL. Even independent groups in Europe like Copenhagen Suborbitals are developing their own proprietary space travel technologies.
NASA is meeting with Michigan companies to discuss supplying and leasing NASA technology, as well as newer start-ups like Made In Space, Inc., who want to use 3D printing to build spare parts for the ISS. NASA hasn't fully given up on its original role, as it will hold a press conference on December 15th to discuss its Space Launch System's advanced booster.
Traveling as far away as Kepler-22b is a daunting task. Although no one is in any position to travel 600 light years – U.S.'s Voyager 1 is only now leaving the solar system after 34 years in space – China, India, Japan and others are on track to develop space travel on the national scale just as NASA continues to coordinate efforts with private organizations developing their own space travel technology. Moltz has valid concerns about space militarization, but he should also keep in mind that the grand sum of multiple competing space travel programs will get us much closer to reaching distant worlds like Kepler-22b than no competition at all.
Photo Credit: Sweetie 187