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The New Space Race

NASA's Orion Spacecraft Launches Unmanned Test Flight
Photographer: Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images
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The first space race was a sprint between the U.S. and Soviet Union competing for prizes of pride and military advantage. The new space race is more like a fun run, with nations and companies working together to reach Mars and the great beyond. The lure of space remains the same as it was for the Sputnik and Apollo pioneers two generations ago: Humans have always longed to explore the unknown. The earthly concerns are also the same: Are the benefits worth the costs?

The U.S. government and commercial space companies are plotting a return to the moon — and well beyond — 45 years after NASA’s final Apollo mission. Where a lack of purpose used to prove fatal to NASA’s proposals for lunar and Martian forays, there’s now an arresting vision — and it’s coming from billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. President Donald Trump, in search of signature accomplishments, prodded NASA to consider a manned mission circling the moon in an Orion capsule that Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing for deep-space voyages. The moon is also beckoning Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, which announced in February its own mission to send two private citizens on a trip around the moon next year. Bezos, who founded Inc. and space company Blue Origin, wants to establish a permanent base on the moon’s south pole, where frozen water in a crater’s crevices could be converted into fuel for a “massive gas station in space.” A lunar way station could further Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars, Earth’s closest planetary neighbor, as insurance against the day humans render their home planet uninhabitable. SpaceX hopes to supply the fleet of rockets needed to sustain humans on Mars. While NASA has found signs of liquid water there, Musk notes the red planet remains a “fixer-upper.” The U.S. isn’t alone in eyeing moon shots. China plans to launch a craft to the moon’s surface to collect samples before returning to Earth.