Yesterday, the Indian mission to Mars, called Mangalyaan, fired rockets that caused it to leave Earth orbit and begin a voyage that will see it rendezvous with Mars in September, 2014. This morning China launched its first moon rover, with a rocket carrying the “Jade Rabbit” on a mission to explore the lunar surface.
India and China are competitors in a new space race. They are vying to join the United States, Russia, and Europe in showing the scientific and engineering capability to conduct complicated space missions and enhance their international prestige as a result.
In the meantime, the focus of American space efforts have changed. Although NASA continues to produce amazing unmanned space exploration missions, with the end of the shuttle program the United States government is temporarily out of the business of launching humans into space. As the Washington Post has recently reported, the torch of manned space flight is being picked up by a number of private companies that are taking a different, more entrepreneurial approach. Many of the companies are located in the Mojave desert — a location familiar to anyone who has read The Right Stuff and knows the history of the Mercury space program. The companies feature imaginative business models that forecast how space flight and exploration can become a profitable venture.
As the Indian and Chinese missions show, there will always be a role for government in space. Many of us regret that the federal government didn’t ignore the naysayers and move much more aggressively into space after the triumphs of the Apollo program with the building of a large, functioning space station, lunar bases, and other efforts. But the government didn’t do so. Now those of us who dream of space exploration should be pleased that private enterprise sees opportunities in the heavens. The history of America has shown that capitalism can work wonders, and competition among companies can spur extraordinary technological advances. If the same visionary leadership and engineering savvy that produced our personal computer and smartphone revolution can be brought to bear on the commercial development of space, who can say what opportunities might be realized?
Keep your eye on the high desert. When we start reading more about readily available “space tourism” flights or mining efforts in the asteroid belt, we’ll know that the future envisioned in countless science fiction novels has moved a little bit closer.