Sputnik Day: Could We have a New Space Race?

Exactly fifty-eight years ago, the Soviet Union rocked history with the successful launch of Sputnik 1 – the first time for humans to contribute a satellite to Planet Earth. While Sputnik was a pretty small satellite – only 58 cm in diameter – its launch triggered the Space Race, in which U.S.A and the Soviet Union tried to impress the world with their innovations, rockets and astronauts. The Space Race came to exciting culmination with the Moon landing on 1969, with a gradual decline ever since.

Today, we are swamped with 3,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. Without these satellites, our lives would not have been as easy as they are now. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, satellites help us forecast the weather, enable us to navigate with GPS, send television signals straight to households, and many other things. In short, they’re incredibly useful, and it’s clear that we’re now reaping the investment made during the Space Race – even though at that time, the two superpowers mainly fought over the prestige of being the first, the best and the brightest.

So today, the day in which Sputnik 1 was launched, it’s interesting to me to think about a hypothetical scenario in which another technological breakthrough occurs: a real game-changer which forces all the world’s citizens to rethink their old beliefs, and drags all the superpowers into another race. What would that scenario look like?

First, it’s clear that the world is a fair bit more cynical today than it was during the Cold War. There are no longer two market and national philosophies at war today. Capitalism has clearly won the game, at least for now. While radical religion could be presented as a rival to democracy, the only place right now where the truly radical, unapologetic expressions of religion can be found are in the Islamic State. And while ISIS has proliferated in an unbelievably rapid pace, it lacks the capacity to make new scientific and technological discoveries. And let’s say gently that they’re not really impressing the world with their contributions to the humanities or the arts.

Since the world is largely uninterested in prestige anymore, we need a technological breakthrough whose impact and consequences would be clear from the outset. What breakthrough might that be?

Free Resources from Space

There are many answers to that question, like discovering a source of free energy (possibly cold nuclear fusion), or finding a way to play with the law of gravity and change the weight of buildings and even human beings (imagine that!). However, scientific breakthroughs are often made on the shoulders of giants – i.e. they rely on plenty of previous research and past successes – and the current scientific literature does not provide us any reassurance that anyone has even gotten close to figuring out these two challenges.

So let’s opt for a more likely scenario, and imagine that sometime in the next ten years, a private firm will succeed in mining an asteroid in deep space, and will bring back to orbit sacks full of gold and platinum. We could definitely imagine this scenario becoming reality, since there are currently at least two companies (Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) competing between themselves to be the first to mine asteroids and bring back their riches to Earth.

Were such a venture to succeed, it would have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Earth. At the moment, the developed world relies on many precious materials that can be found mostly in developing nations. According to data from Fast Company, these materials include fluorspar (CaF2, used for high-performance optics) from Mexico, cobalt and tantalum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, niobium (Nb, used in microcapacitors and pacemakers) from Brazil, and an estimated $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. These countries would essentially lose a significant part of their income, if precious materials were to be imported from space.

This chart by Visual Capitalist shows how long the resources on Earth will suffice. Please note the image here is about half of the full chart, which can be found in Venture Capitalist's site.
This chart by Visual Capitalist shows how long the resources on Earth will suffice.
Please note the image here is about half of the full chart, which can be found in Venture Capitalist’s site.

The developed and powerful nations would face other difficulties. Russia, the U.S.A., China, India, Japan and the European Union have all the means necessary to start space mining themselves, and they will strive to do so as soon as possible, so that each of them can be the first to get to the ‘easiest to pick’ asteroids – the ones whose trajectories bring them closest to Earth, and contain the largest concentrations of precious metals. At the same time, they will go into overdrive developing anti-spacecraft weapons, so that they can protect their investment in space. After all, nobody wants to drag an asteroid all the way to Earth, just to have a competing nation take control over it.

A space mining race, then, is one likely result of this scenario. An alternative, though, might be found in collaboration. Deep space has plenty of asteroids waiting for mankind to mine them, and 13,000 of those asteroids have orbits that bring them close to Earth. A single platinum-rich asteroid contains 174 times the yearly world output of platinum. Perhaps pooling together humanity’s resources, then, and coordinating every nation’s efforts, would be the best way to move forward and to share the abundant wealth to come.

Conclusion

I have no idea which way the world will turn to, but one thing is clear: this scenario forces everyone to rethink their positions regarding space, and to take action of one sort or the other. No nation would be able to afford itself to stay out of the new space race, or at least out of the debate for reallocation of resources that would come for it. There shall be much gnashing of teeth and a lot of anxiety on behalf of world leaders, but in the long term this development would prove to be one of the greatest boons even bestowed on humanity, leading to an era of abundance in precious metals and materials.

Interestingly, we are already starting to consider these scenarios seriously. In a recent workshop conducted by Dr. Deganit Paikowsky and yours truly, the full impact of a similar scenario was analyzed by students who role-played the different nations of the Earth. The results of the workshop will be publicized soon, but until they do, I would love receiving feedback from you: how do you think the nations would react to this scenario? Will we see a new space race, or a joint thrust forward? And which do you think will be the most efficient and successful way for humanity as a whole?

The answers to these questions could truly shape our future.

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