The New Moon Race
February 13, 2012

The New Moon Race

Lee Rannals for

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union changed the night sky, and struck a chord in the competitive hearts of Americans as they launched Sputnik 1 into space.

The satellite launch became a monumental moment for the history of space exploration, but at the time was seen almost as a threat by the American people during a time the Soviet Union and U.S. were in the midst of the Cold War.

That ambition to explore and create may have been mostly driven by rivalry and competition, but had an effect on the invaluable knowledge and technology we have gained today.

Chunking satellites, monkeys and man out of Earth's atmosphere and into orbit was just the beginning of the Space Race, the real feats came as talk about man stepping foot on the moon began to stir.

Back then, the moon was seen as the finish line for this race, about a 238,000 mile long route with an ending sure to be met with international notoriety as the most advanced nation in the field of exploration and technology.

The Soviet Union seemed to have the head start, as Yuri Gagarin took the stage on April 12, 1961, and became the first man in space.  The U.S. was not far behind, launching Alan Shepard on May 5, 1961, to become the first U.S. astronaut in space.

The real call to the starting line was made just a little over a month after Gagarin's flight, when President John F. Kennedy told Congress the U.S. plans to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth.

On July 20, 1969, the race to our celestial neighbor was over.  Neil Armstrong, an American, became the first human to set foot on the moon.

Now, a new Moon Race is upon us, but this time the Soviet Union is now Russia, and the cold war is over.

Both NASA and Roscomos space agencies are reported to be considering trips back to the moon, and with the Obama administration pushing the U.S. space agency to focus its sight beyond low-Earth orbit, it looks to be inevitable.

However, this time the race could be less of a competition, and more of a collaboration.

The Russian space agency said in January that it has been talking with NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) about plans to create a manned research base on the moon.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin told Vesti FM radio station that the space agency plans to discuss the possibility of having a permanent international moon base.

Although 50 years ago this joint effort may have come as a shock, with NASA relying on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to take astronauts to the International Space Station, which was collaboratively built, it does not seem so farfetched.

NASA just recently retired its space shuttle program last year, but the space agency has done well on launching spacecrafts to celestial objects like Mars and the Sun, not to mention the latest GRAIL twin spacecraft currently orbiting the moon.

Russia has seen its short comings in long-distant shots to other objects in space.  All of the country's attempts to reach Mars have failed since the 1960s, and it has lost six spacecraft in the past year due to mishaps.

A trip to the moon could be the savior for Roscomos' reputation, and a lunar base could ease the blow once the ISS mission is complete by 2020.

Heading to the moon is a popular topic in U.S. politics as well, with Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich saying he would like to see a base on the moon.

Even though the ambition for a trip to the moon for Russia and NASA is certainly building, the space agencies not only face budget restraints in the next race, but private industries as well.

SpaceX vice president Chris Thompson said in a press release in 2005: "Getting to the moon in 10 years is definitely doable."  It is unlikely the private space company will be landing tourists on the moon in three years, but it is likely the concept of private industries beating NASA and Roscosmos to our lunar neighbor.

Space Adventures, another private company, also has its sights set on sending space tourists on Lunar missions, with one seat already having been sold for $150 million.  They hope the first trip begins sometime in 2015.

So if politics play out, and budgets continue to get cut, the next space race may not be as dramatic as the first.  But that gray spot in the sky is an envious goal man will continue to reach for, whether through government funding or private industry.

The race for the moon is on.  Maybe in a different form and for different reasoning than 50 years ago, but it´s happening in one way or another.

And stay tuned for details on our upcoming "Shoot for the Moon" telescope giveaway.  We will be announcing the contest rules on our Facebook page in the days to come.


Image Caption: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin photographed by Neil Armstrong during the first Moon landing on 20 July 1969. Credit: NASA


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