A Chinese soldier stands guard near the Shenzhou 7 manned spaceship in 2008.… (Associated Press )
Some 10 years ago, during testimony before Congress, I was asked by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), "Do you think we are in a space race with China?" I quickly answered "no" and proceeded to explain that, in my view, the concept of a space race represented old thinking. The modern way forward in space would be through international cooperation and coordination.
Today, I think my insistence that the space race was over was naive. There are now many space races. One is taking place between China and India, dramatized by India's launch of a Mars orbiter last month and China's launch this month of a lunar lander and rover. China also attempted a Mars orbiter last year, and India has already conducted a successful moon orbiter mission.
Japan is moving forward with lunar and asteroid missions, including one that will attempt to bring a second asteroid sample back to Earth next year. Europe, meanwhile, is planning a mission to rendezvous with a comet next year and two Mars missions this decade. Russia is tripling its space budget and has lunar and Mars missions lined up for this decade; Russia also recently started development on a new rocket for deep space missions.
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And there are private entrants in the race as well, with ambitions to explore Mars or the moon, to observe asteroids, to commercially develop space resources and to promote space tourism.
One contest inherent in the new space race is between humans and robots. The competition is not merely about which is better suited to explore space but also about which is better able to excite future generations about the prospects for interacting with space. Although there is, of course, a role for both humans and robots, I am a human chauvinist: I want humans to explore other worlds (at least get to Mars) before we become satisfied with the advances of virtual world exploration of the universe by robots.
Politically, all these space races are important, with India, China and the United States all launching important missions in the second half of this year. The Indian Mars mission has generated controversy, with critics questioning why India should spend precious money on such an elitist venture.
Bijal Thakore, a young Indian female engineer and business consultant, effectively answered that question in a recent blog, pointing out: "The Indian space program is resolute as always in its purpose to contribute both toward economical and social development of its people. An emerging country like India needs to diversify its unique proposition as an international player within technology, and the space program has been an important tool ever since the vision of a future India was forged by its leaders at independence."
Several years ago in Beijing I happened to get into a conversation with a family while I was eating alone in a restaurant. After preliminary small talk, I asked the mother what she thought about the Chinese moon mission. She considered it a waste of money and human resources, she said, for a country with so much poverty. But her 12-year-old daughter disagreed: Space exploration was a great thing for China to be doing.
I agree. It's important to remember that the money spent on space is spent here on Earth, employing people in numerous fields. We don't explore Mars for the Martians; we do it because it makes us better: technically, scientifically, educationally, economically and even culturally.
Exploring space vastly broadens the horizons of children like that Chinese 12-year-old. It inspires us to solve problems and look beyond our Earthbound concerns to the vastness of what exists beyond our planet.
There will be those who want to focus narrowly on winning a space race with China. But we'll do much better if we compete and cooperate to advance a single goal: moving the planet forward in space. Doing so will take humans of all nationalities as well as robots; it will take private development and government ventures; it will take cooperating with other countries, while still trying to be the best.
Imagine inviting the Chinese to the International Space Station and using that as a springboard for sending humans into the solar system. Our space program then will be serving even a greater geopolitical purpose than it did with Apollo: creating a positive future for the world, with America leading by achievement.
Louis Friedman is executive director emeritus and co-founder of the Planetary Society, and co-leader of the Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study at Caltech's Keck Institute for Space Studies.