The New Space Race: Who Will Take the Lead?
text: Gazeta.kz , exclusively for Gazeta.kz
As the United States prepares to wind down its shuttle program, the race for who can become the most prominent space power is on.
Speaking at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 15, United States President Barack Obama told an audience of NASA staff, politicians, astronauts and business leaders, “More than half a century ago, far from the Space Coast, in a remote and desolate region of what is now called Kazakhstan…the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth, which was little more than a few pieces of metal with a transmitter and a battery strapped to the top of a missile. But the world was stunned. Americans were dumbfounded. The Soviets, it was perceived, had taken the lead in a race for which we were not yet fully prepared.
“But we caught up…President Eisenhower signed legislation to create NASA and to invest in science and math education, from grade school to graduate school. In 1961, President Kennedy boldly declared before a joint session of Congress that the United States would send a man to the Moon and return him safely to the Earth within the decade. And as a nation, we set about meeting that goal, reaping rewards that have in the decades since touched every facet of our lives.”
So began the original space race: a Cold War showdown between Washington and Moscow, the two largest powers left standing in the wake of World War II. Eyeing each other with suspicion, the two nations viewed the expanse of space beyond Earth’s atmosphere as the next front on which to assert global dominance.
The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and changed U.S. relations with Gorbachev-era Russia. But the space race did not end. Today, more competitors than ever are setting their sights skyward.
In the same speech, President Obama unveiled a bold goal in space: a manned flight to an asteroid by 2025. He also proposed a new space exploration budget, with a slight increase in funds. In addition, he reconfirmed that the space shuttle program would be discontinued by the end of 2010, slightly extending a deadline set by the previous administration.
This new direction was set up after a White House appointed committee found that NASA’s project Constellation, which aimed to have a permanent U.S. station on the surface of the moon, was significantly underfunded.
Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, stood behind the president’s plan.
“We need to be in this for the long haul, and this program will allow us to again be pushing the boundaries to achieve new and challenging things beyond Earth,” he said in a statement released by the White House (CBS News).
Other astronauts and industry leaders are afraid the move means America will lose its edge in space research.
During a Senate Commerce Committee meeting regarding the proposed budget, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, said, “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is allowed simply to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered…I do not believe that this would be in our best interests” (NPR).
John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, said in an MSNBC article, “The cost of continuing [the] shuttle is really very tiny compared to the $100 billion investment we’ve made in the station, and keeping [the] shuttle flying, we’ll have the biggest spaceship ever to carry seven [astronauts] and tons of cargo.”
Politics of Space
Why explore space? The main reasons put forward are the advancement of science, and opportunity to better understand the universe. Space experiments have yielded technology used in a wide variety of fields, from food safety to art restoration, surgery to hurricane forecasting. The telecommunications industry has also benefited greatly from the development of satellite technology.
However, the political impact of a successful space program, if not equal to or more important than science, must be counted as a close second. The 1969 moon landing helped firmly establish the United States as the preeminent superpower. By the beginning of the 1990s, the nation held this position undeniably. Regular space shuttle missions, in spite of periodic tragedy, bolstered American pride.
At the same time, Russia struggled to complete its version of the shuttle, the Buran, which made only one unmanned flight before the entire effort was mothballed in 1993. This disappointing episode symbolized, and largely resulted from, the financially troubled times then facing the Russians.
During the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign, astronaut Buzz Aldrin stated, “If we turn our backs on the [space exploration] vision again, we’re going to have to live in a secondary position in human space flight for the rest of the century.
“Globalisation means many other countries are asserting themselves and trying to take over leadership. Please don’t ask Americans to let others assume the leadership of human exploration…All the Chinese have to do is fly around the Moon and back, and they’ll appear to have won the return to the Moon with humans. They could put one person on the surface of the Moon for one day and he’d be a national hero” (The Telegraph).
For decades, the concept of “militarizing” space (sometimes called “weaponizing”) has gone hand-in-hand with its exploration.
This is most commonly done through so-called spy satellites, equipped with very powerful cameras that can provide snapshots of the ground below. Some, called “Keyhole Class” satellites, have been in orbit for over three decades, and can detect objects as small as six inches across. A number of these may be scanning any point on Earth’s surface at any given time.
In recent years, many different types of space weapons have been developed. Some have been produced and successfully tested. These fall into a few categories:
Ground-to-space: This category includes anti-satellite missiles, fired from the ground and capable of leaving Earth’s atmosphere to destroy orbiting satellites. No nation has successfully achieved full function of such a weapon—yet.
Space-to-ground: So-called orbital weapons; again, none are believed to be in use currently. These would theoretically be able to destroy tanks, command posts and other ground-level targets from above the atmosphere.
Space-to-space: Weapons that can inflict damage on other space vessels. For a primitive example, some Russian space stations reportedly have had external cannons attached.
The most famous space weapons program was initiated in 1983 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Nicknamed “Star Wars,” the Strategic Defense Initiative involved both ground and space technology. It was purported to be a defense program, protecting America from nuclear missiles, but the Soviet Union naturally assumed it would be used in a first strike against itself, further heightening tensions.
Currently, even on-the-ground battlefield technology used by a foot soldier has a space connection, as it is linked with satellite-driven GPS.
Article IV of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, at this point signed or otherwise endorsed by most nations on the planet, begins with, “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” However, history shows that such treaties become easy to ignore in desperate times.
Newcomers to Space
Before 2003, only the United States and the USSR/Russia had completed manned space flights. In October of that year, China became the third to do so with the launch of the Shenzhou 5.
A number of other countries have followed the lead of these pioneers in exploring space. France, India, China and Israel have employed satellite surveillance, and many other countries have a space agency of some sort, from the United Kingdom to Brazil to Germany to the Ukraine to Spain.
China is making great strides in space, as in all other areas: “‘China’s manned space program will make the initial installment of putting a permanent “man-able” station in space. Up to this point, China’s manned voyages into space have been successful but transient,’ said [Eric Hagt, China program director at the World Security Institute in Washington, D.C.]. ‘Building a permanent presence in space has been a longstanding goal of China and is more than just another step in its program. It has the important symbolic value of staking a claim in low-earth orbit and illustrates China’s permanent interests and claims to develop and exploit space along with other space-faring powers’” (Asia Times). The ascendant nation sees a space program as one hallmark of a superpower.
Another Asian nation involving itself in the competition is Japan. In addition to already becoming the first nation to send a moon probe fitted with a high-definition video camera, “The Japanese space agency is embarking on a mammoth $2.2 billion project to put humanoid robots on the moon and create an unmanned robot lunar base by 2020…” the New York Daily News reported.
Even South Africa, a nation that battles to retain first-world status, is making forays into space. “With its pursuit of research into the farthest reaches of the universe—deep space—South Africa hopes to provide further proof that Africans can compete at all levels.
“South Africa is investing heavily to join the world’s leaders in space research. The government is investing in ‘micro’ satellites, building on its existing SumbandilaSat platform.
“It is also leading the African effort to host what is widely described as potentially the world’s largest scientific instrument, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope. The SKA, whose massive collection of dishes would stretch across nine African countries, is a next-generation telescope that will examine gas clouds in the early universe at 100 times the power of the most powerful existing radio telescope, the Very Large Array in New Mexico” (Project Syndicate).
America…Still a Superpower?
As of a couple years ago, a Cold War of words between the USA and Russia was still evident: “Not to be outdone by Boeing’s laser cannon advance, a news report out of Russia claims the Soviets were way ahead of the United States back in the 1970s. ‘Russia started developing tactical laser weapons before the United States and has several prototypes of high-precision combat chemical lasers in its arsenal, a defense industry source said…’ RIA Novosti reports, quoting an anonymous ‘expert.’
“Commenting on the announcement, the Russian expert said: ‘We tested a similar system back in 1972. Even then our “laser cannon” was capable of hitting targets with high precision.’
“‘We have moved far ahead since then, and the U.S. has to keep pace with our research and development,’ he added.
“The ‘expert’ goes on to say that the only reason the United States is now ahead is because the Pentagon has poured a lot of money into laser weapons…” (Wired).
A Boeing statement confirmed that on “Feb. 11, 2010, Boeing, industry teammates and the Missile Defense Agency successfully demonstrated the speed, precision and breakthrough potential of directed-energy weapons when the Airborne Laser Test Bed engaged and destroyed a boosting ballistic missile.”
Indeed, the United States government still allots an enormous amount of money for NASA’s budget—$18.7 billion for fiscal 2010, which by itself exceeds the GDP of over half the nations on Earth. Yet most do not consider that it takes more than funding for a nation to achieve success. America is looking less and less like a superpower, and the increasingly crowded space race is one more way this is evident.
Those who believe that the universe, Earth and humankind are a cosmic freak accident would look no further than purely physical reasons for America’s remarkable achievements. Others, believing in a Creator that is distant and uninterested in His Creation, may take a similar view.
However, those who have proven that the Bible is the inspired Word of God can read the following bold declarations:
“Come near, you nations, to hear; and hearken, you people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it” (Isa. 34:1).
“The most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomsoever He will” (Dan. 4:17).
“For promotion comes neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the Judge: He puts down one, and sets up another” (Psa. 75:6-7).
“Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God forever and ever: for wisdom and might are His…He removes kings, and sets up kings: He gives wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding” (Dan. 2:20-21).
Yes, the God of the Bible is involved in the flow of history. There is a reason that nations such as The United States rose to such dizzying heights of power and are now sliding downward. And you may be surprised to learn that it ultimately has nothing to do with American ingenuity, racial superiority or anything for which the American people can take credit.
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