Is the world in the midst of a global space race?

Today’s space race is part cooperation - part competition.

This is the last in a five-part series on the business of space.

The United States has the world’s most developed private commercial space industry and the world’s largest government space budget. NASA is spending $2.5 billion on Curiosity, the Mars rover, which is climbing up the side of a mountain on Mars in the middle of an enormous asteroid crater in hopes of collecting information about how Mars was formed. Last week the agency had another major success: a test run of Orion, a rocket that NASA hopes will one day take astronauts into deep space.

But the U.S. isn’t the only one with bold missions. The European Space Agency spent over a billion dollars to land a spacecraft, Philae, on a speeding comet after traveling 4 billion miles over the last decade. Its aim is to collect information about the earliest days of the solar system. Even though NASA contributed some instruments for the mission, the director of the European Space Agency, Jean-Jacques Dordain, was clear: Score one for Europe. “We have the best expertise in the world, because we are the first to have done that, and that will stay forever,” he said.

These days, space events are a social media bonanza, with millions of people around the world watching on live streaming video and tweeting up-to-the-minute details about missions — not so far off from the beginning of the first space race in 1957, when the world watched as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit and started the space race.

But there’s a big difference now. The race to space in the ’60s was fraught with political tensions and a massive competition over the might and technological prowess of superpowers. Not so anymore.

“Back in the early days of what we think of as the space race, you had the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and they were trying to accomplish specific milestones — who could put a man in space, who could land someone on the moon,” said Micah Walter-Range, director of research for the Space Foundation. “But now the competition is really more on an economic level — who can get the largest share of the global launch market, who can provide more satellite services across the globe to customers everywhere.”

People in the space industry call this “coopetition”— part cooperation, part competition.

“People are looking for ways to work together. Even when you have a mission that is being sent to another planet and maybe it’s technically a NASA mission, they’re still going to be working with universities around the world. They might supply the instruments aboard that spacecraft, and agencies around the world as well,” he said.

“If you look at the International Space Station, this is an example of multiple countries coming together from across the globe to work on a collaborative project,” said Alex MacDonald, a space economist at NASA. “It’s the most complex engineering feat ever attained, requiring the labor and efforts of multiple nations.”

“A country like China is very strategic about how it uses its space program. And in their case, it’s not so much about exploration as it is about providing services”

Micah Walter-Range

Research Director, Space Foundation

But space isn’t immune to politics. As a result of tensions over Ukraine, the United States announced it was suspending all joint rocket and space programs with Russia except for the International Space Station.

NASA still relies on Russia to send American astronauts to the station on Soyuz spacecraft, paying about $70 million per seat.

China is working on building its own space station and has its sights set on landing on the moon to collect lunar samples. But China uses its space program as no other country in the world does: for soft power.

“A country like China is very strategic about how it uses its space program. And in their case, it’s not so much about exploration as it is about providing services,” said Walter-Range. “And so the Chinese have worked very closely with Nigeria, with Venezuela and with other countries that have a lot of natural resources that can then be used in the Chinese economy. So they use their space program and providing satellites and providing training for the people in those countries on how to use the satellites. That’s one of their ways of gaining some diplomatic power and forging new relationships that can then be used in other areas outside the space industry to fuel the Chinese economy.”

India launched a Mars orbiter in 2013 on its first try and on a shoestring budget of $75 million, a fraction of NASA’s Mars orbiter mission, which cost $671 million. But Walter-Range said there aren’t many similarities between the missions.

”Really, they’re similar in time frame, not necessarily capabilities,” he said. “Just to give you an example, the entire instrument payload aboard the Indian spacecraft weighed about the same as one of the instruments aboard NASA’s spacecraft, and I think that was one out of eight.”

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