Is a second space race starting?

Several weeks ago, SpaceX unveiled their plan to get to Mars to much fanfare and excitement – many likened the event to a rock concert of some sort. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, has a plan to create a massive rocket capable of transporting 100 people to Mars at a time for his ultimate goal of colonizing the red planet.

Not one to be left out, just this morning Obama published an op-ed on CNN’s website stating that “America will take the giant leap to Mars.” He touted his record of sponsoring NASA projects in the past and laid out his vision for sponsoring long-distance space ships and the groundwork for the red planet.

Which raises the question, are we in the middle of a renaissance of sorts for space? With all of the above evidence, it appears so.

In reality, we are in a second space race of sorts. Although this time it is not Russia vs. America, but instead public industry vs. NASA and the government, and great credit has to be given to the private companies in this instance.

SpaceX has been the leader in capturing people’s imaginations and sparking this new inspiration and interest in space travel. But there are other companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin who are reaching for the stars – quite literally – and advancing people’s interest in space travel with dreams of the red planet.

While private industry may be the current leaders, NASA is not totally left out. While the glory days of the Apollo moon landings and the Space Shuttle are long gone, and tough acts to follow, NASA has not been without its triumphs. It is funding development in a new space capsule, called Orion, to travel upon a massive rocket they are calling the Space Launch System (SLS).

Other interesting missions have been completed as well. NASA’s Juno probe has taken a closer look at Jupiter and just last month the OSIRIS-Rex mission launched which is a multi-year mission to get to an asteroid, take a sample from it and return the sample to earth.

As such, both the government and private industry are in a race of sorts to get to Mars and to capture the imagination of the public. But why is this important? Why should anyone care about this space renaissance?

For one, it is just really cool. Maybe I am just more of a nerd than most, but the prospect of putting a human onto a different planet is just awesome. These missions push the bounds of exploration, courage, science and human ingenuity. Space truly is “the final frontier.”

But all of this intangible coolness does serve a practical purpose. For one, it is inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists, who will strive to follow STEM careers and do great things – making the next great discoveries that will improve society.

And the space program does create products which eventually become useful to the general public. Ever used a smartphone camera? Those were invented by the NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA has made many other advances in composites and health technology which have become available to the public at large. And the pioneering research into space has unlocked satellite-provided technologies such as GPS to be available to the public at large.

It will be interesting to see what this new space race brings about in technology, and where it will end up. Possibly with humans becoming the first interplanetary species and establishing a home on Mars.

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