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Shooting for the moon: The new space race

  • Story Highlights
  • Space has once again become the place to play out national rivalries
  • The moon is the main focus of national space programs
  • An Asian space race is providing new competition to NASA
  • Security and commercial gains are at stake
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By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- (First published October 5, 2007)

Fifty years ago this week, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit at the height of the Cold War and ushered in the space age.


Eyes on the prize: The moon has become the goal for national space aspirations.

Half a century and hundreds of billions of dollars later, the Cold War battle for the cosmos is history but new international rivalries over controlling the final frontier have emerged.

The U.S. plans a manned lunar mission by 2025, but they're not the only country with designs on the moon. After two successful manned-missions into space in 2005, the moon is in China's sights. Japan, the U.S.'s old rivals Russia, and India all have active space programs, with national pride, national security and even commercial gain all at stake.

"There's a mini-space race going on in Asia with Japan, China and even India claiming an interest in sending astronauts to the moon," Bill Read of the Royal Aeronautical Society told CNN.

For NASA, a Chinese "taikonaut" reaching the moon before them would be an embarrassment. In a speech marking the space agency's 50th anniversary on October 1, NASA's Administrator Michael Griffin said that he expected China to get to the moon before the U.S.

"I think when that happens, Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it.''

China has a probe poised for a launch to the moon, supposedly before the year's end. The lunar orbiter is to be followed by a lander and then, by 2017, a robotic mission to return moon rocks.

Painting China as NASA's main opponent in a new space race might be designed to secure more funding from the U.S. Congress, but space is a new area of competition between China and the U.S.

"The American's are talking up a space race, the Chinese are not. They're hesitating before being pulled into a very expensive race - they haven't made any public commitment to a manned mission to the moon, but who knows what they're thinking privately?" Pat Norris, Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation, told CNN.

The costs of space exploration, manned or otherwise, is incredibly expensive and there has been plenty of international cooperation in space exploration, such as theInternational Space Station. NASA, which estimates it will cost $230 billion to build a lunar base, has invited joint ventures with other countries, but the allure of making a national statement in space remains high.

"There are national rivalries. China sending a man into space was them getting revenge over Japan for being the first Asian country to launch a satellite. It's given the Chinese reason to say they are ahead of Japan in space," says Norris.

Even the U.S.'s old rival Russia is enjoying something of resurgence in space. The enfeebled Russian Federal Space Agency, long under funded during the Soviet-era, has recently had an injection of cash -- securing $12 billion in funding from the government over the next decade, according to reports by the BBC.

Space exploration also fits in with the Russian government's high-profile quest to reassert itself as bold and daring global power. Being able to plant a Russian flag on the moon would give an inter-galactic element to recent demonstrations of Russian international muscle flexing - detonating the "father for all bombs" last month and planting a Russian flag on the sea bed, 14,000 feet underneath the North Pole.

"It really is a national pride thing," says Read. "Currently they launch their satellites and rockets from Kazakhstan, and there's talk of building a new base on Russian soil."

A commercial frontier

As well as national pride there's money to be made. According to a report by the Space Foundation released in 2006, the "space economy" is estimated to be worth about $180 billion, with more than 60 percent of space-related economic activity coming from commercial goods and services.

"Space has always been commercial. Two-thirds of the satellites today are commercial so big money has been made from space technology. Space tourism is a new part of space's business sector that might be small now, but it will grow," says Norris.

Just as private enterprise has transformed the social and economic landscape of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, private companies are leading the way to expand into new frontiers and make the most out of their opportunity.

Russian rocket and space vehicle manufacturer Energia build the Soyuz rockets that transport astronauts and cosmonauts and space tourists to the International Space Station.

At a seminar in Moscow earlier this year, its CEO Nikolai Sevastianov stated it would build a space station on the moon in order to mine its potentially abundant mineral reserves. More bold words that are more about marketing than exploration.

"Russia doesn't really have the money to even compete to dominate space. Even the planned partnership with the European Space Agency on a mission to Mars fell through. What Russia is more focused on is private enterprise and is very good at marketing commercial launches," said Read.

Securing space for national security

While the moon and Mars might give a country some international kudos, Earth's orbit is becoming the main battle ground to ensure national security.

"The real national battles, just as it was 50 years ago, are happening in the military sphere with several countries investing in military spy satellites," says Norris.

"Outer space is of strategic concern to a growing number of countries," said Dr. M. Lucy Stojak of the International Space University in a report published last month by the Space Security Index.

"It is indispensable to national and human security, health, education and disaster management. It's in everyone's interest to safeguard the sustainable use of the space environment."

There is also suspicion over weapons programs. The U.S. plan for a missile defense shield and the American rejection in 2005 of UN talks on banning weapons in space, have cause for concern among other nations.

Aside for military satellites the dependence on satellites for many things from ATM's, cell phone networks and personal navigation, means protecting satellites is a huge priority not just for national security, but the global economy.

Although space junk is the most likely cause of a satellite going out of action China allegedly attempted to intercept an old weather satellite using a ballistic missile in January 2007, raising fears of a "space pearl harbor."

"There are conflicting reports of America developing stealth spy satellites, but when both China and the U.S. sit down and figure out how their military are going to operate, they measure themselves against each other and their respective space programs," says John Pike, director of independent international security think-tank, Global E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Manned Space Flight

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