Space race will foster international cooperation

AMY HOANG / AGGIE

Why it’s beneficial for countries to set their sights on reaching Mars

That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.

It’s been more than 40 years, but these words remain a testament to how far countries will go to prove their superiority and how far the human race can go when we set aside our differences to work with each other.

A few decades have come and gone, and the world order is no longer the same. Relations between the United States and Russia have thawed considerably, and Russia is no longer the superpower it once was. The Cold War is hopefully over for good, yet that was the primary impetus to the space race between the two countries. The common man’s interest in outer space has declined, especially now that milestones in space exploration are no longer tied up in political aims or patriotism. Financial crises and other issues such as terrorism and global warming have taken over the portion of the federal budget that was once set aside for space research. Space programs have looked past the moon and have instead set their sights on Mars, our nearest planet.

The distance from Earth to Mars is at least 130 times the distance between the Earth and the moon. While Mars is known to have an inhospitable environment, scientists believe the planet has the potential to harbor life, as evidenced by the recent discovery of water on its surface. From Asia to the U.S. to the EU, countries have been scrambling to be the first to achieve a scientific breakthrough toward potential colonization of Mars.

The rapid rise of other superpowers has led to new entrants in a space race that, for a long time, seemed to have declined in momentum. China, currently the U.S.’s greatest economic and political rival in the world, has already announced missions to reach Mars by 2021, while NASA plans to reach Mars by 2030.

Space research and politics have been deeply intertwined for decades. This stems from the fact that much of the scientific research that went into putting a man on the moon was fueled by defense and military ambitions on Earth. From GPS and satellite communications to missile-loaded satellites, much of the technology created for launching rockets has “spinoff” benefits for nations’ militaries. The original Space Race between Russia and the US was a display of military and technological strength that culminated in a victory for all mankind.

India is a late entrant to the emerging space race. But with some noteworthy accomplishments, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has proved its mettle. The voyage of the space probe Mangalyaan to Mars in 2013, India’s first interplanetary mission, catapulted the country’s space program to global prominence. It became the first Asian country to reach the Mars orbit and the first country in the world to achieve this feat on its first attempt. The most impressive highlight of ISRO mission was its low budget — about one-tenth of NASA’s own Mars mission. More recently, in 2017, ISRO set another world record when it launched 104 satellites at once — 88 from the U.S., and the remaining from other countries including Israel, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates.

For a nation that is still considered a developing country despite its growing economy, ISRO goes a long way in proving how far India has come. While India is still focusing on solving many social and economic issues, space research seems like an extravagance.

As the U.S. cuts down on expenses related to space research, we could do well to learn from India and find cheaper, more effective ways to achieve our aims. The Obama administration’s cancellation of the Space Shuttle program and its push for NASA to work with the private sector raised many concerns about the future of the space race and NASA’s current relevance.

However, this could be a blessing in disguise. If NASA continues its involvement with private companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, as well as other countries where costs of labor are cheaper, it could significantly increase international cooperation for the sake of technological advancement. This could lead to an overall reduction in cost and much faster advancement in galaxy exploration — not to mention the beneficial effects on diplomatic relations between countries.

As we’ve seen before, the space race eventually encouraged countries to cooperate instead of compete. Now that countries are turning away from globalism and U.S. relations with other nations are in turmoil, material for destructive technology like nuclear weapons can be channeled into something far more beneficial to mankind. Our exploration of space is an extension of the curiosity and spirit of innovation that precedes our greatest accomplishments.

The future of the space race could be led by efforts of peace rather than a need to compete. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Russia, China or the U.S. that sends a man to Mars — a human on the Red Planet has no country.

Written by: Shohini Maitra — samaitra@ucdavis.edu

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