The new space race
Space travel’s place in pop culture history was assured when Neil Armstrong uttered the immortal words “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” back in July 1969.
The American, and global, obsession with the world of space travel had begun. It remains one of the most famous moments in human history as the culmination of the space race between the United States and The USSR, modern day Russia.
The collective awe inspired by sending a man to the moon created a buzz and enthusiasm for science never before seen. People were encouraged, nay, enforced, to look up at the stars and wonder what was possible above the sky. If man could be transported by space craft to the moon as early as 1969, imagine what we might achieve over the next 50 years.
Film, music and television became the arena for such intrigue, with Alfred Hitchcock’s 2001: A Space Odyssey perhaps one of the most famous, in which US astronauts took space planes around the galaxy to visit the moon and Jupiter.
Despite this collective gasp of breath at the possibilities of the future, little has really happened that has managed to recapture that moment back in 1969. Sure, there have been some pretty spectacular achievements, such as the International Space Station, a phenomenal international achievement, but given that the US and Russia aren’t quite in the same race to outmanoeuvre each other, spending has fallen and so has ambition.
That is, until now. Fast forward almost 50 years from one of mankind’s most monumental achievements and space travel is cool again.
That’s thanks, in part or in majority depending on your level of fandom, to Elon Musk and SpaceX, his space company founded in the early 2000’s once he made his millions in internet software.
Musk is widely credited with making space travel ambitious again. With NASA and the US government spending less and less on innovative technology and relying more and more on third-rate Russian and Chinese rockets to transport material to space, Musk stepped in to invest almost every penny he had building space rockets with the intention of injecting the competitiveness of capitalism into the space industry.
With rocket journeys and space travel in general dictated to by a monopoly of inefficient and unambitious state departments, Musk set out to cut the cost of sending rockets into space by up to 90%.
Originally laughed at and dismissed as a lunatic, few could have failed to feel at least a fraction of that same collective awe when Musk’s company’s two Falcon 9 rockets shot off into space only to orbit the earth, send his Tesla convertible car into interplanetary orbit, and land back in the exact same place at the exact same time, all live on the internet.
Having already re-invented a space capsule capable of taking astronauts into space with the aesthetics of a race car, SpaceX set out to reimagine every aspect of the industry. Whereas competitors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin outsourced the building of 90% of their materials overseas, SpaceX sources and builds 90% of its rockets from the United States. This reduces the overall cost of their missions into the tens of millions, rather than multiples of billions offered by the big boys.
It’s not just SpaceX that are now sniffing the opportunity to change the way the human race imagines it’s future, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has also founded Blue Origin, a similar start up to SpaceX with similar objectives.
Musk had set an original target of reaching Mars by 2018, which was later revised to 2020. Famous for his insanely unrealistic targets, Musk still believes that SpaceX can make a meaningful visit to the moon this year, as well as launching space tourists and providing internet from space.
Reported by CNBC, Musk held a surprise question and answer session at the annual technology and culture festival in Austin, Texas last month. The billionaire told attendees that "we are building the first Mars, or interplanetary ship, and I think we'll be able to do short trips, flights by first half of next year."
SpaceX’s ultimate aim is to establish a human colony on Mars, by sending rockets and robots to build a habitable space city within the next 10 years. Whether that’s achievable is very much up for debate.
Regardless of this, Musk’s bolshie and abrasive style has managed to annoy enough people in the space industry, those at NASA, Bezos, the Russians and the Chinese, that it now seems as though a new space race has been ignited but, this time, with the chief protagonists being billionaires looking to provide a future for the human race in the likely scenario that we completely ruin our own environment.
Things such as the clip of the rockets in a synchronised landing really are lighting the touch paper for humanity’s interest and passion for space travel and the wider existential question of how we ensure our species continued survival, and for that I believe we can all feel a collective sense of excitement.