US edge in space intact into 21st century
The race to explore, colonize, and make a buck off of space has always been a good indication of the state of the world political scene. Success in space exploration seems to always follow a nation's economic and political success. Once only a game for the big boys, a symbol of fierce competition or detente and cooperation, space exploration has become a realm open to today's many budding superpowers-in-training.
Of the two nations which started the space race, the Soviet Union, sunk in economic and political turmoil, dropped out, while the United States, strong yet with a weak economy, was forced to rethink its goals in the changing world. The little munchkins, Western Europe and the Far East, who once stood under the protection of the two superpowers, are now stretching their wings, on Earth and beyond. In the long run, however, in global politics as well as in space exploration, the United States will maintain its edge.
When the Americans and the Soviets held world and space supremacy in the 1960s, competition for the first satellite in orbit, first man in space, and first man on the moon dominated the space exploration arena. The US moon landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s symbolized a decade of economic and technological progress, while the Soviets' establishment of the first space stations seemed to symbolize their belief that the Red way of life would persist everywhere in the Universe -- in Eastern Europe, in Vietnam, and in outer space.
When the superpowers realized some time in the '70s that better relations were in order, the two nations began to speak of joint operations in space: a capsule docking in orbit (which was achieved in 1975) and joint interplanetary voyages. In the economic recessions of the '70s both sides realized that a voyage to Mars, for example, would be impossible for either country to undertake alone. Faced with tightening budgets, meanwhile, the two nations concentrated on what they could do best -- the Americans on effective, high-tech probes to the outer planets and useless reusable vehicles like the space shuttle, and the Soviets on space stations filled with astronauts studying thumb twiddling in zero gravity.
In the late 1980s, as we saw on CNN, the world fell apart. The Soviet hold on Eastern Europe and its own nation crumbled, as did the Soviet space program. After years of wanting one for their very own, the Soviets built a space shuttle, and realized that as they had nothing in orbit they would possibly need to fix or retrieve, their version was more useless than ours.
The Soviet mission to explore the moons of Mars failed in midflight. Talk of further US-Soviet missions died, because no one in this country trusts their payloads aboard Soviet launch vehicles, which to this day hold the record for largest unscheduled detonation.
Not that the United States has had a perfect record in the last decade, either. The space shuttle, an engineering masterpiece, proved more glitch-ridden and expensive than originally thought, the Hubble space telescope is in need of an optometrist, and the plan for a permanent orbiting space station needs work. On balance, however, with probes having completed interplanetary missions, and new launch methods and high-speed spaceplanes under development, the United States remains a strong contender in space research.
Just as the world is looking towards Europe and Japan for political and economic growth, so are many viewing their respective space initiatives. European nations, joined under the auspices of the European Space Agency, offer a commercial satellite launching service and build satellites carried by the shuttle. The Japanese, possessing a limited launch capability, are rapidly exploring space telecommunications. US space initiatives involve and will continue to involve the efforts of both Europe and Japan, yet just as no other nation is ready to take our place in world affairs, no other nation has yet to set the pace in space exploration. Just as the United States will continue as a superpower into the 21st century, so will the US space program continue to flourish -- at least, I hope.
The United States holds many advantages in engineering, manufacturing, and the sciences which other nations may never gain, or would gain only through deals with the United States. Space exploration requires raw materials -- rare metals, large, open land areas, and experience -- resources that the we possess now. However, without a clear-cut national goal, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has difficulty justifying its lofty plans and budgets. The current excuse, that space exploration will pave the way for the manufacture of new materials in the zero-gravity environment of space, is barely approachable given the current state of technology. Space exploration is still in an expensive experimental stage, but the public would rather not believe this dismal truth.
Exploration of space, however expensive, must and will continue. A growing population on a world of limited size must look outward to find the resources to survive.
Future space races, like future political conflicts, will not be of the type in which one can keep score. The American nation of the next century will be more of a leader of nations than a lone superpower, and the American space program will assume a similar position as a catalyst for others. Just as nations of the world will join in political and economic union in the future, so must their government space programs, at least for the larger, more difficult, expensive programs that would deplete the resources of any single country that tried to undertake them. Just as in the political arena, the end of the Cold War may bring more complexity to the world's exploration of space.
Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is an associate opinion editor of The Tech.
The United States holds many advantages in engineering, manufacturing, and the sciences which other nations may never gain, or would gain only through deals with the United States.
Without a clear-cut national goal, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has difficulty justifying its lofty plans and budgets.