The New Space Race

By | Updated Sep 27, 2016 7:22 PM UTC

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 asteroids, 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 Situation

The U.S. is developing the first craft to fly humans to Mars, the Orion spaceship made by Lockheed Martin. An unmanned capsule soared 3,600 miles into space during its Dec. 5, 2014, maiden voyage, lapping Earth twice before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. This was the longest flight by a spaceship designed to carry people beyond Earth’s orbit since 1972, though it covered only 2 percent of the distance to the moon. On its next flight, slated for 2018, Orion will travel 435,000 miles beyond the moon. It’s in this translunar region that NASA hopes to eventually harvest asteroid samples to study. A base there could also serve as a way station to deploy ships to Mars that aren’t weighed down with heavy parachutes and heat shields needed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is nipping at NASA’s heels. By 2020, it’s planning to have its own rover join NASA’s exploring Mars for signs of life. NASA’s plans beyond the initial Orion flights remain sketchy; a similar lack of purpose proved fatal to earlier proposals for Martian forays. This time, though, there is an arresting vision — and it’s coming from billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. He sees colonizing Earth’s closest planetary neighbor as insurance against the day humans render their home planet uninhabitable. His company, 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 Background

The space age began Oct. 4, 1957, when the Soviets launched Earth’s first manmade satellite, Sputnik I, and beat the U.S. again in 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. U.S. President John F. Kennedy aimed higher, calling on the U.S. to land a man on the moon. Once NASA met that goal in 1969, interest faded in the Apollo lunar forays. So NASA shifted focus to sending astronauts a few hundred miles into orbit in the first re-usable spacecraft, the shuttle, while sending unmanned craft to Mars. Musk started Space Exploration Technologies in 2002 with a goal of enabling people to live on other planets. The Obama administration adopted similar ideas after scrapping a planned return to the moon in 2010, steering the Orion capsule developed for it to a deep-space mission.

Sources: Congressional Research Service; Bloomberg

The Argument

Is it worth it? Space is costly and complicated, with small missteps punished by loss of life. That’s one reason the political course to Mars may be tougher than any technological challenges. NASA, a frequent target of budget-cutters, will have to shield an effort whose total cost would at least equal that of the $100 billion International Space Station. That’s a daunting task. The hefty price tag will probably force NASA to work with international partners and private companies as it does on the orbiting station — including budding space powers like EuropeChina and India. This could expose the endeavor to geopolitical brouhahas, as with Russia’s 2014 threat to stop funding the space station past 2020. A multinational push to Mars would have to navigate issues from in-flight cuisine to rights to any rare-mineral bounty discovered there. The earlier race to the moon changed American life with innovations from nutritional supplements for infant formula to mobile phone camera sensors. Gains reaped from deep-space exploration could be far greater: from the ultimate high-speed Internet connection (data transmitted via pulsed laser beams) to medical advances flowing from studies of cosmic radiation.

The Reference Shelf

  • A 2013 Space Foundation report, “Pioneering: Sustaining U.S. Leadership in Space,” and NASA’s 2014 response.
  • A collection of Life magazine articles on the original space race.
  • Air & Space magazine article on the new rockets designed to lift capsules into deep space.
  • U.S. Government Accountability Office report calling for NASA to be more transparent about the costs of its space exploration programs.
  • Popular Science collection of articles on the new space race.
  • Excerpt from Ashlee Vance’s book, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.”

First published Dec. 11, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Julie Johnsson in Chicago at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at