The space race is getting harder

Source: Business Standard

Relevance: Understanding the impact of the new space race

Synopsis: A vast technological gap is opening up as humans race to colonize the solar system. A brief look into the space race of the past and the implications of the new age space race.

Why launching objects into space is hard?

India is among only a dozen nations that have put an object in orbit. The reason so few have succeeded is because launching objects into orbit is hard.

  • Things stay in orbit only if they achieve a speed horizontal to the earth of 27,000 kmph. If this “escape velocity” is not achieved, the object falls back.
  • The restrictions that physics imposes on rocket design are what makes this difficult: Over 90% of a rocket’s weight is just fuel.
Advances in rocket tech

Advances in rocket technology happened abroad in two phases.

  • Phase 1: The first was the decade of the 1960s. Russians put the first object in orbit, first satellite, first man in orbit, first spacewalk. Within a decade, from the late 1950s to the close of the 1960s, the world went from having no satellites to humans on the moon.
    • But after that was achieved, the high costs, boredom from the American public and the failure of the Soviet moon rocket ended the energetic race.
  • Phase 2: After 1972, the US went from having the capacity to put humans on the moon to limited capacity in lower earth orbit (LEO), a few hundred kms. After the Space Shuttle programme ended a decade ago, America had no ability to put humans even in low earth orbit.
    • Today that capacity exists only with Russia, using its very old rocket, China and the private firm SpaceX. 
Reasons behind the new space race

In the last few years, a new space race has begun. This time it is being driven by private companies and China. This time the motivations are different.

  • America wants a base on the moon, there are plans in place to colonise Mars
  • There are plans to mine asteroids for rare minerals and bring them to earth, to permanently occupy Mars and, in fact, even to change its climate to make it more earth-like.
  • Technological gap is developing: This new space race means that a vast technological gap is opening up and will continue to open up between those doing this (few pvt companies, USA and China) and the rest of the world’s nations. This gap will not merely be limited to the access to potential new resources, but will also empower them with the new technologies that they will develop over the next decade.
  • Emergence of Spinoff tech: Spinoff tech from the first space race and the tens of billions of dollars pumped into innovation six decades ago produced the portable computer, the mouse, Lasik, artificial limbs, freeze-dried food, water purification and GPS. More breakthroughs of this magnitude will come, first to the entities that develop them, and perhaps then for wider commercial use.
  • Colonization of planets: We must consider also what colonies of humans, possibly of many nationalities, on another planet will mean for earth. The idea of nation-states and borders will appear to be a little silly when our species is colonizing the solar system.


India must consider the implications and what this new space race means for us in a future that we are rapidly moving into.

Must Read: Why ISRO’s launch of Earth-watching satellite failed?


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