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Space Race 2.0

With the U.S. and China leading the race for glory, many companies see opportunities in Space. Moon tourism may no longer be science fiction. “We choose to go to the Moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard…” Former American President John F. Kennedy famously said, challenging America on putting a man on the Moon. Sure enough, on July 16 1969, the Apollo missions and the U.S. become the first to send people to the Moon. 50 years later, China is trying to do the same. This time, on the dark side of the Moon.

On January 3rd, 2019, in a historical feat, China became the first country to land a space exploration probe – Chang’e 4 – on the far side of the Moon. A few hours after the probe’s landing, China’s Yutu 2 rover (Jade bunny) reported the world’s first close range image of the far side of the Moon. Because of “tidal locking” – the Moon taking just as long as Earth to rotate itself – we only see one side of the Moon. The other side is called the far side, or commonly called “the dark side”.

Many landmark missions to the Moon have been made in the past, including the iconic Moon landing mission Apollo 11, but no far side landing have been conducted. This is because radio waves that are essential for communication between unmanned spacecraft and mission control back on Earth are blocked by the Moon’s body. To bypass this problem, a relay satellite – Queqiao (magpie bridge) – that rotates around the Moon was launched by the China National Space Administration (CNSA). Through this hovering satellite, CNSA was able to bounce data from Yutu 2 to Earth and vice versa.

The Yutu 2 rover. Photo: Joel Raupe/Flickr.

China goals for Yutu 2 are plenty. They hope to observe whether plants will grow in a low-gravity environment, examine resources on the Moon, conducting the first lunar low-frequency radio astronomy experiment, and studying the interaction between solar winds and Moon surface. China’s plans don’t stop with Chang’e 4, as they are planning to send more missions to the Moon.

U.S. space policies historically have been driven by competition during the Cold-War. With China’s rising economy and technological break throughs, will the U.S. engage in a new space race?

In April 2018, under the Space Policy Directive 1 issued by American President Donald J. Trump, NASA announced plans to establish a base on the Moon, where it will enable long-term lunar missions and prepare for human missions to Mars. The plan is broken down into several major groups, among those, a hope to mine water on the Moon. Differing from previous missions, this time NASA plans to stay on the Moon. Which means missions coming forward must be sustainable – they must be cheaper, and need to be independent. And so, NASA began investing in cooperation with private companies.

On February 21, along with SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Israel launched the Beresheet lunar rover into space. Created by an Israeli non-profit company SpaceIL, Beresheet will attempt to be the first privately funded rover to touchdown on the Moon.On March 2nd, private rocket company SpaceX successfully launched their Crew Dragon capsule into of Earth’s orbit with NASA, launching a new  era of Space programs. Even though the only passengers are a dummy (nicknamed Ripley) and an Earth plushy, this successful launch is a historic first in U.S. and commercial collaboration, and could mean that we will soon be ready for space tourism. Japanese Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is said to be the first customer for SpaceX’s #dearMoon Lunar tourism mission.

Material resources on the Moon are also attractive reasons for private companies to invest in Space. American private company such as Moon Express (MoonEX), sees the Moon as “readymade mine in the sky”. NASA sees the Moon’s potential as a base for sending people to Mars. In August 2018, water ice is confirmed on the Moon, which gives great implications to future settlements on Moon. Water molecules H2O could be broken down into Oxygen, and Hydrogen can be used as rocket fuel, therefore suggesting the Moon can support life.

Ice water on the moon. Photo: NASA

Besides cooperation between state and private companies, international cooperation in space is also common. However, a 2011 law bans NASA from working with China citing national security concerns. Though some U.S. officials voice concerns over cooperation with China, some officials are hopeful for potential cooperation and believe that the 2011 ban should be relaxed or reversed. This is becoming more relevant as part of NASA’s lunar exploration objects is their “Global Exploration Strategy”, where they plan to include International Space Agencies, academia, private sector and private citizens in the development of their lunar objectives.

Outer space is becoming an important asset for both political and economic reasons. As technology develops and the cost of new technology lowers, nation states are no longer the exclusive players for space explorations. While state programs such as the U.S. and China may be focusing their effort on the Moon for nationalistic and scientific reasons, private companies are vying for the Moon as a viable resource for commercial success.

Space travel may sound like science fiction, but 2019 is slated to have at least 5 more Lunar landings. Enterprises such as China’s Chang’e 5, India’s Chandrayaan-2, Europe Space Agency(ESA)’s collaboration Lunar Pathfinder, and MoonEX’s Lunar Scout all signals that the Moon is the new final frontier. With the new Impetus for space exploration, tourism to the moon may no longer be just science fiction.

Emily Hsiang

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