More statement than science

by lestro

The 20th century was defined by the battle between two global superpowers; the United States and The Soviet Union. Aside from the nuclear missiles and mountains of debt, one of the most noticeable strands of the competition between the two nations was the space race.

After the USSR launched Sputnick, the first man-made satellite launched into orbit, the two nations went back and forth, launching rocket after rocket in an attempt to one-up the other.

In 1961, President Kennedy urged us on to the moon – something for which the Soviets were aiming for as well. As the two programs battled neck in neck, it forced NASA to take chances to try and beat the Ruskies, like sending the first Saturn V rocket we tested all the way to the moon with a trio of intensely brave astronauts strapped to the top.

We made it first, of course, planting an American flag on the moon and then going back a handful of times to collect rocks, explore the terrain and play some golf.

Nearly ten years later, we met up with the Soviets in space, shook hands from 100 miles up and then launched the re-usable space shuttle program, abandoning the moon and the great metaphor and goal it represents.

The Soviets, by the way, never made it to the moon.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight and the US assumed the role as the world’s only superpower, getting fat and lazy in the way of the unchallenged. The space program also stagnated, focusing on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station and other earth-orbital experiments. It’s all very impressive and amazing that we can get there and back, but it’s not particularly awe-inspiring.

We have had no competition and our space program reflects that.

Now, in the 21st century, America’s power is on the wane as new superpowers are rising from Asia. And as the US prepares to shut down its space program for a few years (relying totally on Russia to get our astronauts to and from the space station), the world’s two most populous countries are beginning to stare each other down over a rocket engine, as both China and India have now stated their goals to get to the moon.

The launch of Chandrayaan-1, as the vehicle is called (it means, roughly translated, “Moon Craft-1”) comes about a year after China’s first moon mission. The Indian mission is scheduled to last for two years, prepare a three-dimensional atlas of the moon and prospect its surface for natural resources, including uranium, a coveted fuel for nuclear power plants, according to the Indian Space Research Organization, or I.S.R.O. Allusions to an Asian space race could not be contained, even as Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, was due for a visit to China later in the week.

“China has gone earlier, but today we are trying to catch them, catch that gap, bridge the gap,” Bhaskar Narayan, a director at I.S.R.O., told Reuters.

Just like when we did it, the race to the moon is more statement than science.

The moon mission, in addition to demonstrating technological capacity, can also potentially yield commercial gains for India’s space program. India’s ability to put satellites into orbit has already resulted in lucrative deals, including from Israel, which has sent up a satellite via an Indian launcher.

“It is proof of India’s technical capability in an advanced area of science,” said Dipankar Banerjee, a retired army general who heads the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies here. “India wants to be counted as one of the emerging players in Asia. Space is of course an important part of power projection.”

Aside from the pride such missions can instill in a nation, the scientific breakthroughs could be myriad.

The United States, meanwhile, continues to languish. I agree with nearly nothing the president and this administration has done, but I do support President Bush’s efforts to get us back to the moon by 2015 and on to Mars. I think giant, seemingly unattainable goals remind us of what we can accomplish when we all work together.

The cost is, well, astronomical, but I believe the benefits are worth the risk. Plus, it would remind the world once again that not only do we have a big military, we have a big scientific brain that we use for peaceful purposes as well.

Speaking of which, there’s an odd similarity between the Indian Space Agency’s logo:

and the logo of Starfleet:

while the Chinese logo:

looks like a combination of the Starfleet logo and the Federation logo:

Meanwhile, on our side of the world, both presidential candidates have plans for our space program. both support continued exploration, including going back to the moon and on to mars. But only one candidate seems to understand the power that a great vision can hold over a nation to help bring us together, even in difficult times.

“When I was growing up, NASA united Americans to a common purpose and inspired the world with accomplishments we are still proud of. Today, NASA is an organization that impacts many facets of American life. I believe NASA needs an inspirational vision for the 21st Century. My vision will build on the great goals set forth in recent years, to maintain a robust program of human space exploration and ensure the fulfillment of NASA’s mission. Together, we can ensure that NASA again reflects all that is best about our country and continue our nation’s preeminence in space.”

There’s also a really cool logo to go with it,  via Wired on October 22, 2008:

The Obamanauts have compiled a head-to-head comparison of the candidates’ stances on space, and are also encouraging pro-space voters to make calls to undecided Florida voters to encourage them to vote for Obama.



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