Together, to the stars
In 2019, apparently excited by the idea of a 'space force', US President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that "space is the new war-fighting domain" and that the US remains committed to achieving dominance of outer space.
Before he made these comments, the idea of militaristic activity in space had been laid to rest by the Outer Space Treaty. Not too long ago, Trump's comments may have been easy to laugh off as a mere show of sabre-rattling in an imaginary battlefield. Now, in 2020, as nations and private entities increasingly engage in the 21st-century space race, there is much more riding on attempts to keep outer space an area of cooperation and not confrontation. Signs of contention are already clear. Presently, even as the ISS celebrates the first radish harvest in space, there is news that Russia is looking to leave the ISS initiative by 2024 to pursue its own programme. Although the Russian space agency Roscosmos has indicated that it is open to extending participation, the assertion itself is problematic. The ISS is a symbol of human cooperation in space and has played host to astronauts from several different countries, ethnicities, gender, etc. As an ageing symbol of the end of the first space race, it should serve as an example to emulate and then scale-up. Space is, as Star Trek has enthusiastically proclaimed, the final frontier, the destiny of our advancing civilisation as we outgrow our planet and its resource constrictions. A challenge of such scale can scarcely be limited to the participation of a select few entities.
2020 has been a year when multiple nations, with the help of private industries, have joined this booming sector. China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, India and Japan are among the new players that are looking at long term investment in space. In particular, Japan, India and China are driving Asia's growing role in space exploration. This week, even as a Chinese probe carrying samples from the lunar surface successfully docked with an orbiting spacecraft for the return journey to earth, Japan retrieved a capsule filled with asteroid dust samples.
The return of Japan's Hayabusa2 capsule has met much collective excitement from the scientific community as the samples collected by the spacecraft in its six-year mission span may hold possible insights into how the solar system was formed and water was brought to earth. Since asteroids are generally believed to have been formed at the dawn of the solar system, scientists say the new asteroid dust sample may contain organic matter that could have contributed to life on earth.
Its potential scientific significance aside, the retrieval of the capsule is also significant for it highlights the close technical cooperation between Japan and Australia. The capsule, after being dropped by Hayabysa2, landed in the Australian outback where it was successfully recovered by a cooperative effort between the two space agencies.
Such efforts are only the beginning. The era of space exploration can only go forward at this. NASA has been involved with private contractors to reliably and cheaply land humans on the lunar surface by 2024 under its Artemis programme. Billionaire Jeff Bezos, whose company Blue Origin is involved in the initiative, recently showed the first glimpse of the rocket engine that will supposedly be the one to put the first woman on the moon. This is part of the conscious effort by NASA and many other space agencies to now make space exploration more inclusive and united. What the inclusion of private industries will ultimately mean for this goal of opening up space exploration remains to be seen though many doomsday soothsayers have already predicted a future when only the rich get to escape earth. Ultimately, as many astronauts have said, the flag on your sleeve stops mattering so much in the vast and unexplored frontier of space. As we slowly face the challenges that must be met to truly reach the stars, humanity has a real opportunity to course-correct and permanently embed the idea of cooperation and inclusivity into the idea of space exploration and reject the old narrative of space being a new warfighting domain.