The evolution of the space race

The former Soviet Union launching the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in space in October 1957 was a turning point in the history of mankind. He scored the first blow in the space race. The Soviets followed with a series of firsts. The first living creature, Laika, a Siberian husky, was launched into Earth orbit in Sputnik 2. Lunik 3 was then launched to photograph the far side of the moon.

These events took place at the height of the Cold War. The two superpowers clashed across theaters, from aerospace and nuclear capabilities to performance in the Olympics.

The United States (US), which had perceived military superiority over its great rival, was stunned to suddenly find itself in a position where it had to catch up. But the United States quickly regrouped. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) was established in October 1958.

The Soviets always stayed in the lead and won the race to send the first man into space. US President John F Kennedy announced the Apollo program shortly thereafter, with the first person landing on the moon by the end of this decade being the stated goal. The United States has succeeded and has taken a decisive lead.

A few steps that were taken by man then led to many giant leaps for mankind. Currently, more than 70 countries have their own space programs.

At the same time, India has become a space power. Shortly after the first Soviet space successes, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took the initiative to establish the Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR). Led and guided by pillars such as Vikram Sarabhai and Homi Jehangir Bhabha, it counted APJ Abdul Kalam among its first members. India launched its first rocket in 1963. Incredible photographs still circulate from this time, of rocket parts taken at the launch center in Thumba, an obscure rural village in Kerala, by bicycle.

The Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) was then formed from INCOSPAR. ISRO Chandrayaan since then missions have landed and have even confirmed the presence of water on the moon. India’s Mars Orbiter, Mangalyaan entered the orbit of the Red Planet at a cost that represented only 11% of NASA’s mission to Mars.

Currently, there are ongoing missions led by various nations, to explore planets all the way to Pluto. There are attempts to set up research stations even on the moon. Space satellite technology has disrupted the communications and broadcasting industries and is now used to deliver the Internet to the most remote places on the earth’s surface, wherever there is a dearth of basic infrastructure for connectivity. A few countries have even launched space mining projects. All of these efforts can have far-reaching positive results. Meanwhile, a few tech billionaires have started a new race – private spaceflight in space. While currently viewed as a macho competition between ultra-rich tycoons, advancements in this industry could one day make space travel and tourism a very exciting prospect.

Overshadowing these events, US intelligence sources obtained reports that China recently conducted two hypersonic nuclear weapons tests in orbit around Earth. These would make existing air defense systems obsolete. The United States issued a statement saying it was concerned about China’s new nuclear-capable delivery systems.

This is hardly surprising since the growing number of aircraft carriers and military bases in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, intended to curb the expansion of Chinese influence, currently has no defense against this innovation.

Senior Pentagon General Mark Milley described the tests as “close to a Sputnik moment.” India, the United States, Russia and France are among the other countries working on similar weapons. China’s breakthrough will certainly spur other nations to quickly gain traction, for, unfortunate as it is, the promise of retaliation and mutually assured destruction remains the only deterrent and protection against these deadly weapons. It would also be the harbinger of another, more powerful and costly space and nuclear arms race, making our turbulent planet an even more dangerous place to live.

Anil K Antony is a tech entrepreneur and public policy commentator, and works on Congress digital initiatives

Opinions expressed are personal


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