Calls For a New Way of Thinking About the Global Space Race

Written by staff writer.

As two of the world’s leading space powers gear up to send humans back to the Moon in a big spending space race, a history professor specializing in science and technology says the big missions don’t necessarily define the story of the global space race. Instead, it is about winning more of the smaller projects.

Professor Asif A. Siddiqi from New York’s Fordham University discussed the legacy of lunar exploration at the recent Space Sustainability Summit. He agrees the return of humans to the Moon and the eventual establishment of a permanent presence there are “the big benchmarks.” Still, he says it would be a mistake to overlook the lower-profile missions underway and the competitive tensions between space nations.

Historically, Siddiqi says the most important space race was that between the United States and the Soviet Union. “Between Sputnik and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the Moon, we can think of it as a race between two superpowers,” he said. “Human exploration of space quickly devolved into a very high-stakes race by the 1960s.”

Because the United States first made it to the Moon, they are widely assumed to have won that space race, but Siddiqi suggests otherwise. “Before that landing, there was an enormous amount of investment in the robotic exploration of the Moon, both by the Soviets and the US, in terms of all sorts of smaller benchmarks like the first lunar impact, the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, the first soft lunar landing, and the first lunar orbit. We forget, but in those little races, the Soviet Union dominated almost every benchmark, but it is forgotten as the United States won the big one.”

While China has replaced the Soviet Union as the primary counterpart to US space supremacy, Siddiqi says the principle remains the same. While the first of the powers to return to the Moon may get the glory, that prize may not determine who wins the space race in the first half of the 21st century.

“Now, there are a lot of little space races going on, just like in the 1960s,” he said. “There are similarities, but there are also enormous differences.”

Siddiqi says the way space races play out, particularly between nation-states, means that calls for a global space governance treaty may need to be revised. While the Soviets were adversarial towards the US in the 1950s and 1960s, undermining international space cooperation at the time, in the 2020s, the Chinese are even more antagonistic, and also highly secretive. Siddiqi argues that future global governance and cooperation agreements require thinking outside the box and consideration of alternatives to a UN-style space treaty.

In addition to China’s role in the space ecosystem, Siddiqi said the shifts in the barriers to entry to space, the new players, including from the private sector, and the increasing commercialisation, changes the whole ecology of what’s going on in space compared to the first big space race. Consequently, he says we should shift how we think about inter-nation space competitiveness and how it is managed.

“We need to let go of our nostalgia for Apollo and move on and work with different models to the old 1960s space races.”


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