Tag Archives: space technology

Next Space Race Won’t Have Just One Winner

Until Jan. 3, no human being had ever set eyes on the “dark side” of the moon — the side always facing away from the Earth. It was a mystery. But no longer. China’s National Space Administration successfully landed a lunar lander, Chang’e-4, at South Pole-Aitken, the moon’s largest and deepest basin. Its lunar rover Yutu-2 is sending home dozens of pictures so that we can see the soil, rocks, and craters for ourselves. Seeds it took on the journey also germinated (before freezing to death), making this the first time any biological matter from Earth has been cultivated on the moon.

Scientists had long speculated about the existence of water on the moon — which would be necessary to grow crops and build settlements. India’s Chandrayaan-1 satellite confirmed a decade ago that there was water in the moon’s exosphere, and in August 2018, it helped NASA find water ice on the surface of the darkest and coldest parts of its polar regions.

India’s Mangalyaan satellite went even further, to Mars, in 2014, and is sending back stunning images. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a manned mission to space by 2022, and one Indian startup, Team Indus, already has built a lunar rover that can help with the exploration.

The Americans and Soviets may have started the space race in their quest for global domination, but China, India, Japan, and others have joined it. The most interesting entrants are entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Team Indus’ Rahul Narayan. They are space explorers like the ones we know from science fiction, driven by ego, curiosity, and desire to make an impact on humanity. Technology has leveled the playing field so that even startups can compete and collaborate with governments.

In the 50 years since the Apollo 8 crew became the first to go round the moon and return, the exponential advance of technology has dramatically lowered the entry barriers. The accelerometers, gyroscopes, and precision navigation systems that cost millions and were national secrets are now available for a few cents on Alibaba. These are what enable the functioning of Google maps and Apple health apps — and make space travel possible.

The NASA space shuttle program cost about $209 billion over its lifetime and made a total of 135 flights, costing an average per launch of nearly $1.6 billion. Its single-use rockets were priced in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Musk’s company SpaceX now offers launch services for $62 million for its reusable Falcon 9 rockets, which can carry a load of 4,020 kg. And yes, discounts are available for bulk. Team Indus built their lunar rover with only $35 million of funding and a team of rag-tag engineers in Bangalore.

NASA catalyzed the creation of technologies as diverse as home insulation, miniature cameras, CAT scans, LEDs, landmine removal, athletic shoes, foil blankets, water-purification technology, ear thermometers, memory foam, freeze-dried food, and baby formulas. We can expect the new forays into space to yield even more. The opportunities are endless: biological experimentation, resource extraction, figuring out how to live on other planets, space travel, and tourism. The technologies will include next-generation nano satellites, image sensors, GPS, communication networks, and a host of innovations we haven’t conceived of yet. We can also expect to be manufacturing in space and 3D-printing buildings for space colonies.

Developments on each of these frontiers will provide new insights and innovations for life on Earth. Learning about growing plants on the moon can help us to grow plants in difficult conditions on this planet. The buildings NASA creates for Mars will be a model for housing in extreme climates.

As with every technology advance, there are also new fears and risks. Next-generation imagery can provide military advantages through intelligence gathering. The military already has an uncanny ability to track specific people and watch them in incredible detail. For any sort of space station or base on another planet or moon, there is the question of who sets the rules, standards, and language that’s used in outer space. Then there’s the larger question of whose ethical and social values will guide the space communities of the future — and the even larger question of whether places beyond Earth are ethically claimable as property at all.

Regardless of the risks, the era of space exploration has begun and we can expect many exciting breakthroughs. We can also start dreaming about the places we want to visit in the heavens.


Vivek Wadhwa is the author of “Driver in the Driverless Car,” which explores how we can create the amazing future of Star Trek. And he is a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon Engineering at Silicon Valley and Harvard Law School.

Making America Great Again?

Every year NASA celebrates its past glory by inducting an ever-dwindling number of American astronauts to the Hall of Fame at a glittering gala. I had the opportunity to attend the latest one on April 21, 2018 at the Kennedy Space Center, courtesy of Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturing company. I was also very fortunate to be seated next to Kent “Rommel” Rominger who has logged over 1,600 hours in space shuttle missions.

Growing up in India, in high school and in engineering college, I was captivated by the space missions of American and Soviet astronauts. I would devour  any news, any book, that I could lay my hands on, in those dark days without the internet. Alan Shepard, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Valentina Tereshkova, Neil Armstrong and all the Mercury, Vostok, Gemini, Voskhod, Apollo and Soyuz astronauts were my heroes.

Imagine my excitement when I found myself sitting below that massive Saturn-V rocket and dining with these brave hearts! I was ecstatic.

But I was also sad!

NASA was once the crown jewel of America, and Florida was the proud home of this space giant. From halfway around the globe I knew of Florida only because of NASA, not because it had beaches, was home to Disney World or was a great place to live post-retirement.

Florida  was the home of the world’s premium space research agency that  enriched our lives: from the stickiest Velcro to high technology that eventually fueled the Internet. NASA helped create the demand for high technology to solve problems they faced in space, thus fueling development of new materials and processes. Development in rocket science was directly applicable in defense. And, it provided economic stimulus for Melbourne, FL  and the cities and towns around it. California and Florida were the two states in America which were identified as the home of aerospace research and technology.

Came the 1980s and they killed the space program. Beginning with the Reagan administration, all successive administrations in Washington had enough of this “white elephant” that was spending millions of taxpayer dollars to send one person in space and doing nothing for recession-hit America.

Such was, and is, the myopia of the political leadership of the right and left that they refused to continue with the funding of NASA and keep up the work it was doing to make, umm…America Great.

Disintegration of the USSR took away another incentive of keeping pace with the enemy. Immediately, the economy of the region tanked. The wise men and women making those policies didn’t realize the long term effect of this decision. Subsequently they spent a good amount of the same “saved” dollars to prop up the economy of the region. They offered incentives to bring in manufacturers to revive the economy and it did, to some extent. But they couldn’t bring the glamor, the status, the brand name it once enjoyed.

America stopped on its tracks before finishing the race. It became complacent after its nearest overseas rival folded. It didn’t see the distant rival that was catching up fast. China was already close.

It was said in the 19th and 20th centuries that whoever controlled the oceans, ruled the world. The British built an empire that the Sun didn’t set in, until they ceded the supremacy at seas to US and USSR.

In 21st century, whoever controls the space will rule the world. Does this world want to be led by values which don’t include respect for fundamental human rights? I doubt it.

Unless America converts this “stop” in space exploration to a temporary “pause” and resumes the race, it has no chance of gaining the leadership position it once enjoyed.

Wake up America!

The next time somebody tells you that he or she will make America Great, please ask a simple but pointed question: Will it be done by digging coal or sending American men and women to Mars?