The New Space Race Isn't Glitzy, But It Is Global in Scope

But keep your eyes on the skies. A new space race is dawning

This story appears in the July 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Forgive, if you will, the focus this month on the 50th anniversary of the moonwalk, one more in what must seem like an endless series of episodes of baby-boom nostalgia.

If you weren’t there, it’s a bit hard to explain what a pop-culture phenomenon the American space program was at the time. The names of the Mercury and Gemini astronauts were so well known they didn’t qualify as answers to trivia questions. Kids collected the shoulder patches, converted boxes of any size into replicas of capsules and mimicked weightless space walks, dressed up like astronauts at Halloween, took Tang with them on camping trips and set aside mimeographed work sheets as the big black-and-white TVs were wheeled into classrooms to view one more launch or splashdown.

There was one other pop-culture moment of note that summer of 1969: the concert at Woodstock. But unlike the music and musical acts of that event, which live on at countless classic-rock-format radio stations and on the casino-and-fair concert circuit, space exploration faded as a subject of popular fascination. These days the eyes of the nation, particularly its youth, are pointed firmly not at the stars but at miniature screens held at less than arm’s length — even if the signal needed to animate that screen traveled through space, or relied on space-program technology to get there.

Maybe it was the repetitive successes that made the space program, even going to the moon and coming back, a bit dull and caused people to lose interest. Or maybe it was the parade of generally depressing news that the late ’60s and much of the ’70s produced in surplus.

Or it was the cost. (If you hear in this moonwalk anniversary month that the event “brought us all together as a nation,” don’t believe it. Even then there was massive squawking about government spending on the space program that, critics argued, would be better directed to needs on Earth.) Or perhaps it was the lack of blockbuster leaps of technological achievement — “An orbiting space station for research? How nice.”

When attention was paid at all, it was because of bad news like the two horrific disasters involving shuttles Challenger and Columbia, negating what had been a good in-flight safety record for the U.S. space program.

Space is back, this time in a way that might wind up being far more consequential in terms of scientific and engineering accomplishment, economic impact and influence on people’s lives. No one in the 1960s thought space travel or a Jetsons lifestyle was realistically possible. A child born today, however, has a reasonable expectation of seeing colonies on the moon, spaceflight tourism as a normal, if pricey, activity and commercial activities in space — be it mining or for telecommunications.

The new space era will see more participation by more countries. The first round was largely a two-horse race and the Soviet Union, after seizing the early lead, dropped out. In recent months China and Israel have both sent objects to the moon, while Japan has been working on technology to grab samples from asteroids.

The expanded playing field in this new space era, in turn, will mean more opportunities for space-business clusters of the type the Seattle area has been trying to build, with a combination of legacy companies and startups. Some of those ventures have and will sputter out, but there’s enough potential that people around here will keep trying to make it work.

What space won’t have this time is the spotlight of public attention, at least not until celebrities start jetting into space for the weekend. The only downside to not being a pop-culture presence is that the space sector will have to work harder to rationalize spending decisions made for its benefit. And maybe that’s not such a downside, if sacrificing some attention means building a more enduring space presence.

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