Race for the prize

Features editor

Are we on the brink of a new Space Race? China’s announcement of plans for its space programme has triggered speculation that a burst of competition might break out among the other spacefaring nations, in an attempt to beat the Taikonauts to the moon. But is that really what’s likely to happen?

China’s plans up to 2020 were outlined in a white paper which took in the development of a space-station in low Earth orbit, similar to the old Soviet station Mir, building on its current construction of a prototype station, Tiangong-1, whose first module was launched last year. It also detailed exploration probes bound for asteroids and planets in the Solar System, and ‘preliminary studies for a human lunar landing’ – although it hasn’t proposed a date for a moonshot.

We can speculate that the reason for this activity is to promote China’s position as an innovative engineering nation. It certainly doesn’t have that image at the moment — China is seen as a location for low-cost labour, for manufacture and assembly of electronics and other goods which have been developed elsewhere. It’s not somewhere you’d expect high-technology to be developed. Taking a lead in space exploration — and especially putting people on the moon — would certainly change that perception.

But would it trigger a new Space Race? Maybe not. The original Space Race was a battle of ideologies, with Kennedy’s America and Khrushchev’s Soviet Union competing to show that their political systems could mobilise science and technology and their military-industrial complexes better than the other towards lofty goals. There was also the threat of the weaponisation, or at least militarisation, of space — each side was worried that the other could build observation satellites, or even orbital missile launch platforms, to watch and threaten the other.

Those fears faded somewhat as the space programme progressed towards lunar missions, but the fact remains that neither side wanted a representative of the other’s political ideology to take the first steps away from the Earth. When Russia cancelled its lunar programme, its political congratulations to NASA for the Apollo 11 landings were somewhat grudging. Buzz Aldrin may have thought that he’d come in peace for all mankind, but the politicians who put him there certainly weren’t thinking that way.

But the politics of space have changed since then. While military observation satellites are a reality and still a concern, the scientific exploration of space is much more of a collaborative matter these days. The response to China’s moon mission is less likely to be a panicked strategy to get there before them, and more likely to be a shrug of the shoulders and a comment of ‘Go on, then. Good luck! Can we stick an instrument or two on your lander?’

We’d argue that the natural inclination of an engineer is to collaborate rather than to compete, and while scientists might race to be the first to a particular discovery, they’re just as interested in replicating results and then working with other teams. It’d be marvellous if what China’s announcement triggered was a proposal for an international collaborative approach to getting back to the moon; we have much clearer ideas about what sort of science we’d like to do if we could get a manned team back there than we did in the 1960s. The spirit of exploration is expressed much better as a collaboration than as an exercise in nationalism, as has been pretty much proven by the fruits of the Antarctic Treaty and the great strides in climate and geology research that have taken place there.

But a collaborative mission to return to the moon is probably a forlorn hope, at least on a scale that includes all the spacefaring nations. The US’s plans are on hold, although the goal to land humans on an asteroid by 2025 remains in place; Russia is trying to improve the reliability of its Soyuz launchers; and Europe’s medium-term plans revolve around unmanned exploration. But maybe we could look forward to an all-nations Mars mission. That should be an aspiration that any government could get behind.