A new space race

Alan Cai

March 1, 2024

When Sputnik 1 was launched into orbit on October 4th, 1957 —in the midst of the Cold War—, the first space race had officially begun. Both American and Soviet scientists and governments began to work around the clock to beat the other in the new extraterrestrial frontier. Dominance over the cosmic realm could confer innumerable advantages to the victor’s side, of which could potentially include superior communication systems, sabotage and disruption capabilities, espionage, and even ballistic missile interception(see Strategic Defense Initiative).

In 2024, America stands on a vastly different world stage. Instead of competing in a bipolar world of military and economic juggernauts, the United States arguably stands alone as the single hegemonic superpower in the world. Today, America expands into space with no clear objective, few visible competitors, and minimal global recognition.

Space is no longer a strategic target; it is a commodity open to the commercial exploitation of private companies. Companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are joined by many other space and technology companies in a bid to make space part of their proprietary assets. While space tourism itself is a developing business, corporations are still looking to monetize further space exploration.

Intuitive Machines, a space exploration company based in Houston, Texas, landed their moon lander Odysseus on the lunar surface last Thursday, marking the first successful commercial spacecraft landing in history. NASA reportedly paid $118 million for six experiments on the craft. The lander tipped over upon landing, resulting in a few systems to become dysfunctional. Antenna are angled toward the ground and some of the solar panels which provide the craft with the crucial energy needed to take and transmit images are rendered obsolete. In preparation for a frigid lunar night(when the side on which the lander sits is positioned away from the sun) lasting 2-3 weeks, the Odysseus will temporarily power off its systems in hopes of being able to recharge once the sun returns.

The Intuitive Machines lander, which was launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9, comes after Japan’s similar Smart Lander for Investigating Moon(SLIM) and its similar botched landing fiasco last month. Although both spacecraft incurred unexpected damage and difficulties at touchdown, both are ostensibly functional and will continue to carry out their respective missions for as long as they can endure. Nevertheless, America and Japan should place greater emphasis on quality control for moon landings, especially if humans were to set foot once again on the lunar surface.

The space race is not the competitive rivalry it was back in the 60s. Regardless, Americans are still continuing to push the boundaries of the last frontier. While space innovation itself is likely a net benefit for society, it is best achieved as a means toward an end rather than as a goal by itself.