In this last week of February in the leap year of 2012 we enjoyed a celestial event. Jupiter, the Moon and Venus made a triangle in the evening sky that was quite spectacular. The Moon was actually a perfect crescent moon, round side down, tips up. We often miss celestial phenomenon here in my home town because our night sky is usually clouded over, especially in winter. But I did happen to see this particular configuration in person and it was far larger in the sky than it appears in photographs (however the heavenly bodies were not tagged). It was truly stunning and dominated the night along with Orion, the Hunter, also spectacular, and visible in spite of city lights. If it hadn’t been so cold I would have liked to stand under that night sky for quite a while.
This was also the week that I listened to a discussion about our race to space under President Kennedy. The speaker, whose name I did not catch, felt that we should have been concentrating on colonizing space in those heady days, and that if we had we would have people (scientists) living in space already. Sadly, he said, our only goal was to beat Russia, to not let Russia get the upper hand in space. So we spent tons of bucks just to go there, with no more ambitious goals to justify the dollars. It was just an expensive episode of saber rattling. Perhaps the most positive outcome is that it did distract everyone from starting WW III. Of course, there are no do-overs in history, at least until we perfect a time machine, so we will never know what would have been accomplished if we had a more cosmic agenda.
In an article called “The New Space Race” by Paul Spudis posted on February 9, 2010 in the online publication called SpaceRef, Mr. Spudis says that “China is stepping up their program to send people to the Moon.” It asks the question, “Are we in a race back to the Moon? And if there is a ‘space race’ today, what do we mean by the term? What are the implications of a new space race?” Is it NBG? “The so-called ‘Moon race’ of the 1960’s was a Cold War exercise of soft power projection, meaning that no military confrontation was part of it, but rather, it was a competition by non-lethal means to determine which country had the superior technology and by implication the superior political and economic system.”
The article traces the history of the American space program and concludes in this way.
There is indeed a new space race. It is just as important and vital to our country’s future as the original one, if not as widely perceived and appreciated. It consists of a struggle with both hard power and soft power. The hard power aspect is to confront the ability of other nations to deny us access to our vital satellite assets of cislunar space. The soft power aspect is to a question: how shall society be organized in space? Both issues are equally important and both are addressed by a lunar return. Will space be a sanctuary for science and PR stunts or will it be a true frontier with scientists and pilots, but also miners, technicians, entrepreneurs and settlers? The decisions made now will decide the fate of space for generations. The choice is clear; we cannot afford to relinquish our foothold in space and abandon the Vision for Space Exploration.
While I very much agree with this point of view, in order for this to happen we will have to hope for some kind of financial miracle. We are a competitive group, so the reality that we are not in a mad rush to colonize the moon before China is a clear sign that we currently have other issues on our minds. Meanwhile we will have to be satisfied with the celestial wonders we can see from earth.