The List: Sputnik Plus 50

It’s been 50 years since a tiny, bleeping orb named Sputnik triggered a decades-long competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to rule the heavens. But if you thought the space race was over, think again. In this week’s List, FP looks at the five hottest contests for space dominance.



Back to the Moon

The challenge: Partying like its 1969. National pride aside, a trip back to the moon presents a host of research possibilities and a potential natural resource grab (think helium-3 and oxygen-rich minerals like ilmenite) for ambitious space-faring nations.

The reigning champ: Under U.S. President George W. Bushs Moon to Mars program, announced in 2004, the United States aims to be back on the lunar surface by 2020, with plans to build a permanent solar-powered moon base where astronauts can stay for up to six months at a time.

The challengers: They are coming from all sides. At the rate the Chinese are going, NASA has warned, they will have no problem beating Americans back to the moon. China also aims to establish a lunar base by 2020 and expects to launch its first unmanned lunar orbiter before the end of this year. India hopes to send up a similar space probe as early as April 2008. But so far, Japan has led the way with the successful launch of its lunar orbiter Kaguya in September. The most advanced spacecraft sent to the moon since the U.S. Apollo missions in the 1970s, Kaguya is a major step toward Japans goal of building a manned station on the moon by 2025. The private sector is also gearing up to take a giant leap forward in the lunar challenge: Google recently announced a $20 million prize for the first private team of researchers to send a rover to the moon by the end of 2012.


Mars and Beyond

The challenge: Putting a human on Marsand all the prestige that comes with it.

The reigning champ: NASA has all sorts of orbiters, rovers, and landers destined for the red planet. Two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have been surviving dust storms and exploring craters on Mars since 2004. The Phoenix lander is currently headed there to look for hints of water and signs of life. And NASA is aiming to put a human on the surface by 2037.

The challengers: Russia, the European Union, China, and India. For now, most of the discussion surrounding a Mars mission involves unmanned probes, such as Russias Phobos-Grunt and the European Union (EU)s Mars Express. Compared with the lunar rivalry, there is a great deal more talk of collaboration and cooperation on exploration projects, with scientists calling for countries to pool their resources together, like they did to develop the International Space Station (ISS). So far, both the Chinese and the Indians have partnered up with the Russians. China and Russia are expected to launch a joint mission to Mars in 2009; Russia will launch the spacecraft while China will provide the survey equipment. In the short term, the closest humanity might get to a manned mission is Mars-500, a simulation space flight to Mars organized by the the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems and the European Space Agency. At the end of next year, six lucky astronauts will endure over 520 days in the space station module. Though theyll never actually leave the ground, they will still have to deal with mock emergencies like fires and a radiation scare.


Antisatellite Weapons

The challenge: U.S. vulnerability. Rapid advancements in antisatellite technology are generating the biggest bang in space weaponization and making the United States network of critical communication, intelligence, and surveillance satellites look like sitting ducks in orbit.

The reigning champ: The United States demonstrated its capability to take out satellites with ballistic missiles way back in 1985. The Pentagons current focus, though, is developing high-power laser technology such as the ground-based Starfire Optical Range at the Kirtland Air Force Base. The Pentagon says Starfire is intended for tracking purposes, but the system could easily be used in an attack capacity. Other growing U.S. technologies include maneuvering microsatellites and space-based interceptors, which can be used to track and knock down enemy satellites or missiles.

The challengers: Mostly China, but also Russia, India, and Israel. The world held its breath when China conducted its first antisatellite test this January, shooting down one of its own aging satellites in low-Earth orbit with a ballistic missile. As if that wasnt enough, reports point to Chinese attempts to blind U.S. spy satellites with laser technology. Chinas improvements in satellite tracking have legitimate peaceful uses such as avoiding space debris, but they could someday pose a threat to U.S. satellites. The United States also faces growing competition from Russia, India, and Israel, which have been rapidly improving their space surveillance and satellite jamming capabilities as well as developing similar laser technologies to potentially blind or destroy satellites.


Global Navigation Satellite Systems

The challenge: Skyrocketing demand. The global market for global positioning devices hit $15 billion in 2006. And its not just military planners who are buying. These systems provide accurate positioning, navigation, and timing information to farmers, rescue workers, and lost drivers everywhere.

The reigning champ: The Pentagons Global Positioning System (GPS) has been the worlds dominant navigation system ever since the full 24-satellite constellation was put in orbit in 1994. GPS III, the next generation of navigation satellites, will be more resistant to jamming, will be more user-friendly, and will no longer have a feature to turn off its signal (which is a gesture to international users who were worried that their devices could be shut down on a whim by the U.S. military).

The challengers: The EU, China, India, and Russia. The EU once had big ambitions for its own 30-satellite navigation system, Galileo. But the project became a victim of an internal funding feud when EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot failed to convince Europeans that Galileo was a bigger budget priority than, say, agricultural subsidies. Frustrated by Galileos lack of progress, one-time investment partners India and China now have separate plans to launch their very own systems. Though details of Chinas Beidou (Big Dipper) remain hazy, the basic goal is getting the satellite system to cover the mainland and parts of neighboring countries by 2008, and eventually expanding to offer global coverage. And lets not forget Russias old-school GLONASS, which is set for a major revamp and is also looking to be a player in the burgeoning consumer market.

NASA/Getty Images

Spacecraft: The Next Generation

The challenge: Obsolescence. The U.S. space shuttlecriticized for being fragile, dangerous, and astronomically expensiveis due to retire in 2010.

The reigning champ: NASA is diligently working on its next generation of space vehicles, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), whose first manned mission is scheduled for 2014.

The challengers: Russia, China, and the private sector. For 40 years, Russias Soyuz spacecraft has had a monopoly on ferrying people back and forth from the ISS. And a ride in Soyuz isnt just limited to astronauts: Since 2001, the Russians have sent five space tourists out of this world for a hefty price tag of $20 million each. The Chinese claim their Shenzhou spacecraft is a formidable rival, but it wont be going to the ISS anytime soon since the United States opposes Chinese participation in the space station. As for the private sector, California-based Space Exploration Technologies and Oklahoma City-based Rocketplane Kistler won NASA contracts totaling $500 million to develop spacecraft for the agencys use. Others are more interested in the budding space tourism industry. In 2004, the X Prize Foundation awarded $10 million to SpaceShipOne as the first privately funded manned spaceflight. British billionaire Richard Branson and his new space venture, Virgin Galactic, have already received more than $24 million in deposits from about 200 would-be space tourists in 30 countries. Hotel magnate Robert Bigelow successfully launched a test of a low-orbit habitable spacecraft in June 2007 and is now offering a $50 million prize to any private team that can put a manned spacecraft into orbit by 2010.

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