The State of Space Exploration, 50 Years After the Moon Landing

9 MINS READJul 19, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing mission, launched on July 16, 1969.
(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first and second men, respectively, to walk on the moon on July 21, 1969.

Editor's Note: On July 20, 1969, humans first landed on the surface of another world. The 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo lunar mission is an apt time to highlight Stratfor's essays and analyses examining the dawn of the second space race — an age in which global players and private companies alike will look to extend their terrestrial power by seeking opportunity beyond Earth's atmosphere.

The Second Space Race

If space is endless, then so too are the opportunities for exploiting it. The military and commercial applications are simply too great to ignore. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union understood as much, so they tried to best each other as much off the planet as on it. But other countries, not to mention private companies, have since entered the fray. As more players compete in the second space race, they will aggravate existing geopolitical tensions on Earth and, in some cases, create paths for cooperation.

The imprint of NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon. The photo was taken on July 21, 1969, during the landmark Apollo 11 mission. 

(NASA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Pluto: A Reminder of Why Space Is Important to Science on Earth

July 18, 2015: State financing of space budgets, especially in the United States and Europe, has come under increased scrutiny following the end of the space race, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and most recently the global financial crisis. Dwindling financing for high-profile missions will undoubtedly lead NASA and other Western state-led space programs to scale back or limit their activity. China, on the other hand, has made a more concerted effort to expand its space science programs in conjunction with more immediate commercial and military applications.

There is ample room for the private sector to help. Increased development of the space launch market, both for small and large payloads, will drive down the cost of launching objects into space. ... However, it will be decades before a non-government institution is able to finance a major space mission like a flyby of Pluto. 

This chart shows the percentage of the total U.S. budget devoted to NASA

Space: The Increasingly Crowded Frontier

March 16, 2016: An increasing number of space science missions aimed at improving basic understanding of planetary science have been launched or proposed in the past few years. These missions have been part of spaceflight since its advent but long were launched only by traditional space powers: the United States, Europe and Russia. Today, a new set of players has entered the arena, launching missions to the moon, the asteroids and other planetary bodies. China, Japan and India have all performed, attempted or announced missions to Mars in the past three years. 

The proliferating global use of space will be a defining feature of the 21st century, and science missions are only one part of this trend. Access to space will be essential in order for nations to pursue both military and economic objectives. And those depending on this technology will no longer want to be reliant on partners to help launch missions.

Scientists work on the rover for India's second-ever lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2. The unmanned launch was initially scheduled for July 15, 2019, but technical issues forced its delay.


NASA Continues Its Journey in Space 

Feb. 23, 2017: Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Life is a journey, not a destination." The sentiment applies as much to life on Earth as it does to the search for life beyond it. On Wednesday, a research team led by NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets in orbit around TRAPPIST-1, an ultracool dwarf star located nearly 40 light-years (about 378 trillion kilometers or 235 trillion miles) away. All seven planets may have liquid water on their surface, and three are located in the exoplanet system's habitable zone (the area that could sustain life), though researchers have yet to find evidence of either.

Even if NASA confirms that life exists outside of our planet, it will likely be too far away for Earth's inhabitants to interact with it anytime soon. As the researchers acknowledged in their news conference, discovering life beyond Earth is not the point of looking for it. Instead, it's the process — and the discoveries and inventions born of it — that counts.

A NASA digital illustration depicts what the surface of the exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f might look like. 

(NASA via Getty Images)

U.S.: Vice President Shoots for the Moon

Oct 5, 2017: The list of entities with viable space programs has changed substantially since the United States made its first trips to the moon in 1969 and in the 1970s. The moon has been deemed a strategic asset by the Trump administration, but it's also become the focus of other nations such as China. The United States is just one of many nations for which a competitive space program remains an important strategic goal. ...

But it's not just national programs that can influence space exploration and development. In his op-ed, the vice president also alluded to continued reliance on private space companies to maintain U.S. dominance in space. The commercial space sector will be vital to the United States reaching its targets, whether they're focused on the moon or on Mars. 

Falcon Heavy Rocket Flies Like an Eagle 

Feb. 6, 2018: SpaceX's process of disrupting the space industry remains long and prosperous. The private company has successfully launched its Falcon Heavy rocket, sending its "payload" spacecraft, which in this case carries founder Elon Musk's personal midnight cherry-colored Tesla Roadster, on the path to its Earth-Mars orbit around the sun. SpaceX is far and away the leader of the space exploration private sector, having seized on a distinctive, multi-pronged strategy to increase the frequency of its launches while driving costs down. ...

This massive accomplishment marks another step toward the company's longer-term goal of sending crewed missions into space — and potentially outpacing private sector competitors like Boeing to earn valuable NASA contracts. A successful Falcon Heavy, which can carry heavy loads such as certain military satellites into higher orbits than any other active rocket, puts one more piece of SpaceX's puzzle in place. ... The private company will continue causing shockwaves among its competitors, forcing them to adapt, innovate or struggle — [ultimately] contributing to a cheaper and more competitive industry that will make space access easier than ever.

The Tesla Roadster and its dummy driver "Starman” moved beyond Mars' orbit in November 2018. The two are now moving back toward Earth after more than a year transiting the solar system. 

(SpaceX via Getty Images)

Reusable Rockets and the Dawn of the Next Space Age 

Feb. 28, 2018: Still, the real prize is access to space. No U.S. leader for the past 60 years has managed to understand or convey that space is a place, one filled with far more resources than our planet contains. The abundance is close enough to alter the way we live. Once tapped, it would surely cause a manifold reduction in the price of most commodities and, as a result, a manifold increase in global living standards — not to mention the Earth's environmental quality. The geopolitical ramifications of such a development would be huge. China's near-monopoly on rare earth minerals, for example, would be gone practically overnight, along with the materials' high price. And that's just the beginning. ...

Access to space will drive demand not only to go there but also to build fortunes there. Those fortunes, in turn, will radically change how we live here on Earth. Like Robert Fulton's steamboat or the Wright Flyer before it, [SpaceX's] reusable Falcon 9 rocket stands to alter the course of human history. The transformation will take some time to play out, but it will be no less revolutionary for that. We are witnessing the dawn of humanity's real Space Age.

Chinese Space Agency Lands Probe on the Moon's Far Side

Jan. 3, 2019: China has landed a lunar probe on the far side of the moon. On Jan. 3, the Chang'e 4 spacecraft, which includes a rover, performed a soft landing in the moon's Von Karman crater. It's the first mission to overcome the technical challenges of landing on the moon's far side, which, among other feats, requires the probe to communicate with Earth via a lunar satellite relay. While landing on the far side of the moon is within NASA's technical abilities, the United States has not pursued the development and testing of spacecraft to accomplish such a feat. ... And, given that space dominance has long been a key bulwark of U.S. power, it will be a particularly important field for the budding great power competition as Washington seeks to maintain its military, technological and economic edge over China.

A Chinese lunar rover began exploring the far side of the moon on Jan. 4, 2019. 

(Xinhua/CNSA via Getty Images)

China's Giant Leap Into a New Space Race 

Jan. 10, 2019: China was a latecomer to outer space, launching its first satellite only in 1970, 13 years after the Soviet Union's Sputnik, and its first taikonaut in 2003, 42 years after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. It also operates on the cheap, spending less than one-fifth as much on its programs as the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. However, China is now without a doubt the world's second-greatest space power, and strategists are increasingly talking about a second space race, paralleling the original race between the United States and the Soviet Union from the 1950s to the 1980s.

China is now, without a doubt, the world's second-greatest space power.

In some ways, the 2010s Sino-American rivalry looks similar. The China Daily, a Chinese government publication, regularly pronounces that the nation's successes in space show that China is catching up with Western science and technology. However, there is one big difference: While [Nikita] Khrushchev and his successors insisted that Soviet space exploration showed that communism was a superior system to capitalism, Beijing's leaders have consistently interpreted their own space program as evidence for the strength of their national culture, not for the strength of socialism.

The Super Blood Moon and the New Age of Space Competition

Jan. 18, 2019: The moon and the space in which it resides have become a focal point for a global power competition among the United States, Russia and China. ... As during the days of the U.S.-Russia space race during the Cold War, many civilian and military applications developed from efforts in space. And, with each successive U.S. administration, different approaches to space exploration and travel are developed. For decades, the United States, Russia and other countries cooperated in space, peacefully working to sustain the international space station and the work taking place there. But as tensions between [the three countries] escalate, [it will] impact what happens in space as well as on earth.

'If I could get every Earthling to do one circle of the Earth, I think things would run a little differently.' – Karen Nyberg, NASA astronaut


"Earthrise," the iconic picture taken from Apollo 8's lunar orbit in 1968, has been deemed as one of the most historically significant photos of the 20th century.

(SSPL/Getty Images)

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