When the Soviet Union launched a basketball-size satellite 50 years ago this week, it touched off a race for space that became a hallmark of the cold war. It was a two-player game with high technological and geopolitical stakes. It led to the US Apollo program, which placed the first humans on the moon. And it led to the Soviet Union's Mir program, which yielded Earth's first long-duration manned space station.
Half a century later, the world appears to be on the verge of Space Race Version 2.0. The objective: the moon. China, Japan, India, and Europe, as well as Russia and the United States, have either placed themselves at the starting line or are hovering close by.
At a global conference on space exploration in Hyderabad, India, last week, for instance, China reiterated its intent to set up an outpost on the moon after 2020. The effort would build on a series of unmanned lunar missions, beginning with a robotic orbiter China is preparing to launch this fall. Earlier in September, Japan launched a lunar orbiter, and its space agency has announced a goal of sending astronauts to the moon by 2020 and building a lunar outpost by 2030. And India is getting set to launch a mission next year. Meanwhile, the US is pressing ahead with its Constellation program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. Some analysts caution that many of these are plans without budgets yet, and thus talk of a space race is premature.
"Only poets write strategies without budgets," says Joan Johnson-Freese, a specialist on China's space program. "There's a difference between conceptual discussions and programs that are adequately funded to carry them out."
As if to underscore the point, last month NASA administrator Michael Griffen acknowledged that China may beat the US back to the moon. Americans won't be thrilled about that, he noted, "but they will just have to not like it."
Others suggest that with the advent of the X Prize's $30 million purse for the first team to land a working rover on the moon, space races in the geopolitical sense will become increasingly obsolete or irrelevant as private industries find ways to make use of the moon's resources or service future lunar outposts.
Still, Dr. Johnson-Freese adds, "there certainly is the perception of a race between the US and China" as well as a perception of a race within Asia.
Part of that perception is a question of timing, suggests George Whitesides, who heads the National Space Society, a space-exploration advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
"We find ourselves unexpectedly in a time where virtually all of the space powers are sending probes to the moon," he says.
Bush's speech was a trigger
The mini-moon rush has several triggers, he adds. President Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration has served as the major prod. Moreover, the moon is a good place to stretch technological muscles for fledgling space programs trying to develop skills in robotic space exploration.
"India has done a tremendous amount in low-Earth orbit focused on Earth resources, but it hasn't done a lot of exploring the solar system," Mr. Whitesides explains. "The moon seems like a logical place to go." And, he adds, there is "a reasonable argument that some day there will be practical benefits for the home nation."
In a keynote speech at an astronomical symposium in March 2004, Mr. Bush's science adviser, John Marburger, put the president's Vision for Space Exploration in starkly economic terms.
"As I see it," he told the audience, "questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the solar system in our economic sphere, or not."
That sparked little reaction in the US, Whitesides says. But it turned heads in Asia and Russia.
Use of moon's resources
Yet many specialists say any economic benefits are distant. Some suggest that the moon's surface is a prime location for collecting a form of helium that could be used for fusion energy. The problem: The current, multibillion-dollar international fusion research effort focuses on a reactor technology that wouldn't use the helium the moon has to offer.
Instead, Dr. Marburger and others point out, resources on the moon would more likely be used there to avoid having to launch expensive supply ships from Earth. Such resources could be used to assemble vehicles for solar-system exploration or refuel stations for assets in Earth orbit.
For many countries, the prospect of going to the moon still carries the promise of increased influence in global politics. China has been positioning itself as the go-to space program when developing countries want to build and orbit satellites of their own Johnson-Freese points out.
The question, many say, is whether cooperation wins out over competition as spacefaring countries head toward establishing outposts on the moon – a more costly proposition than sending astronauts up to stomp on moon dust.
That cooperation may be more likely to emerge on the commercial side, notes Art Dula, a professor of space law at the University of Houston. He says he can foresee cooperative government efforts, such as setting up lunar space-science parks dedicated to research. These could be modeled after terrestrial "parks" such as the collection of international telescopes in Hawaii.
For pure research, the pursuit of knowledge, and pure exploration, governments will play a key role, he suggests. But to truly exploit whatever the moon has to offer, look to the private sector, he says. There, cooperation via multinational contracts may render the idea of a space race to the moon obsolete.