The new space race

The new space race

Alan Peaford looks at why the space race is heating up again – and why that's good news for innovation and future generations.

The new space race

My four-year-old grandson came home from school this month incredibly excited. As part of an increase in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) the school was celebrating Space Week.

He explored the Moon, designed his own spacecraft and learned about exploration.

The fascination of space reminded me of my teenage years when Apollo 11 made the first manned Moon landing on July 20 1969. Just over three years later Gene Cernan took Apollo 17 to the Moon for the final mission returning with a record amount of lunar rocks.

It had been the development of intermediate-range and intercontinental missiles by the Americans and the Russians that provided the critical electronic technologies as well as the rockets necessary to boost small payloads into orbit. Disruptive technology against a background of combative nationalism had created the Space Race. It caught the attention of the people around the world. Space was exciting. It was real.

It is now almost half a century since the first Moon landing and 46 years since the last. Since then we saw the development of satellites and, of course, the Space Shuttle.

Space is sexy again 

With the end of the Cold War, we had signs of greater international cooperation and of course were fascinated by those Space Shuttle launches and the International Space Station but space seemed no longer quite as sexy as it had been in the 1960s.

But things are changing. We may be becoming more protectionist and more competitive In our national policies, and with that, there is a clear increase in interest in space.

This year’s Farnborough International Airshow saw huge growth in the number of companies bringing space technologies to the event. At Bahrain Airshow last month it was the same. Space is sexy again.

At Farnborough, visiting UK and ESA astronaut Tim Peake, walked through the hall and was treated like a rock star. At Futures Day, he was described as an ‘inspiration’ to the many young people who watched as he extolled the virtues of careers in space.

“More so than ever we’re taking astronauts that come from very diverse backgrounds,” he said. “You can be an engineer, a scientist, a medical doctor. We have schoolteachers who have become astronauts. There are a variety of different careers. You just have to be passionate about it and good at what you do.”

Apollo 15 commander Al Worden visited Farnborough, Zhuhai’s China Airshow and Bahrain shows to push the importance of STEM education for youngsters.

“You can imagine how much more exciting it is for kids to hear about these subjects from a guy who applied what he learned in school to go to the moon!” said Tom Kallman, president of Kallman Worldwide, the organiser of the USA Partnership Pavilion at aerospace and defence events around the world. 

Made in space 

Space exploration has been at the root of many benefits for mankind. There have been advancements in the fields of health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, energy and environment, information technology and industrial productivity, and it is no wonder that the space industry –and indeed industry as a whole – needs to encourage the next generation of innovators to take an interest. Space has generated such innovations as solar panels, water-purification systems, Teflon, cellphone cameras, wireless headphones, infrared ear thermometers, memory foam mattresses and LASIK eye surgery to name but a few.

And now NASA has a plan for astronauts to orbit the moon in 2023 and return to the surface by the late 2020s using a lunar orbiting platform called Gateway.

But there is competition for space and not just from the Russians. The private sector has become increasingly involved in the launch of satellites and around the world, countries are growing their own space agencies and successfully launching satellites for communication or surveillance roles.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is close to opening space to tourism while Elon Musk’s Space X enjoyed one of the largest satellite ride-sharing missions ever launched in December. Space X could also be preparing the launch vehicle for the Mars One project, in which a small number of humans will be making the first one-way-ticket mission to the Red Planet.

At FINN we talked to Dr Adriana Marais, a quantum biologist and theoretical physicist ,who is part of the team of prospective astronauts and extra-terrestrials hoping to set up base on Mars.

I was fortunate to have introduced Dr Marais at conferences at both Farnborough and Bahrain and have seen sceptical audiences move towards wanting to volunteer to be part of that early wave of settlers.

So many of the disruptive technologies that we are seeing on earth are likely to be vital for the survival of these settlers. 

Essential space tech 

3D printing of bones will aid the injured on Mars; 3D printing will also be the engineers’ source of parts for equipment – or even furniture.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also coming to the fore. The AI astronaut assistant, CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion), developed and built by Airbus on behalf of the German Aerospace Centre, has passed its first tests in space. CIMON is a medicine-ball-sized plastic sphere, which weighs five kilogrammes. It was created using 3D printing and is the first AI-based astronaut assistant – an experimental technology studying human-machine interaction in space.

The bot worked together with German ESA astronaut, Alexander Gerst, in the Columbus module of the International Space Station (ISS) for around 90 minutes.

Reusable launch systems are making space missions more affordable and DARPA has its own launch Challenge which will culminate in late 2019 with two separate launches to low Earth orbit within weeks of each other from two different sites. Competitors will receive information about the final launch sites, payloads and targeted orbit in the weeks before each launch.

The plan is to see more companies involved, make space travel cheaper and take us to the next stage.

For my grandson, it cannot come fast enough.

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