It’s a question I’ve heard many times throughout university. I took aerospace engineering and a lot of the people in my class tended to get a little more than upset at that question. They were nostalgic for a time they weren’t even alive in. They wanted to be hearing about NASA or Russia, or ESA, or even CSA’s achievements in furthering our conquest of the solar system. And when their news feeds or I Fucking Love Science didn’t post about it, the question awlays came back.
But it’s still a good question. Why don’t we have another space race?
In short, there’s still a race, but it’s not as much a race against another nation, it’s a race against time. Yes, that means global warming will make the next hundred years on earth quite difficult for all seven point something billion of us. The biggest problem, I think, that’s holding us back is the limits of current technology.
In the first space race, in the 60s, we — the global “we”, had just invented the rocket. That could get us to the moon in around four days. Now, we want to go to Mars. By current estimates, with our rocket engines, we’d need between 150 and 300 days, depending on a variety of factors. That means we need, on average, 8 months worth of supplies, and then the supplies for the mission which could be anywhere from a week to several months, and then 8 more months of supplies to come home. The Martian did a great explanation of how to achieve this, but we still need better.
NASA recently began testing on its ion propulsion engine, a concept I’m barely qualified to talk about, but I’ll try anyway. It’s works by ionizing gas to propel a craft. Super heated gas, typically an intert gas (Remember your chemistry? Neon, Helium, or Xenon typically get used) to accelerate the gas to about 30 km/s. (67108 mph, or about 1100 times the speed limit on your highway).
In the days before the rocket engine was invented, we weren’t concerned with a space race, we were concerned with flying our planes faster. Getting to space became an application of the rocket. We’re in that phase. We’re in the phase of inventing the new technology to get us to the farther reaches of the solar system. They also recently leaked a paper about their “impossible” EM drive being plausible. I’ll have to research that one for a later piece.
All this is to say that Our space race is coming, we just need to build the building blocks first.