It had been ten years since World War II had ended. Now the war was cold, with no missiles, but with space rockets. On the one hand, the Soviet Union; on the other, the United States. The two powers went out of their way to prove to the globe, and to their peers, the strength of each.
Initially, it was the Soviets who showed their reach. In 1957, ruled by Nikita Khrushchov, the USSR was the first country to place an object in space.
The artificial satellite that reached Earth’s orbit was named Sputnik 1. A few months later, the Soviets were already sending the first living being, the dog Laika, into space.
But it was in 1961 that the communists left humanity with their mouths open: aboard Vostok 1, the young astronaut Iuri Gagarin, 27, became the first human being to orbit the Earth.
The Soviets’ deeds bothered the Americans, who, in 1968, through the Apollo mission, orbited the Moon and, less than a year later, placed for the first time a man on Earth’s only natural satellite.
The entire American feat was made possible by a machine developed by NASA called the Saturn V.
At 111 meters high, the equivalent of three stacked redemptive christs, the rocket was capable of carrying 118 tons of payload into low earth orbit — which is the weight of 17 male elephants. Meanwhile, the Vostok 1 launcher was 38 meters long and carried 4.2 tons into space.
“It was the first time that a project methodology based on what we call systems engineering was used: a relatively small group of very experienced engineers controlled all actions related to the development of the vehicle”, explains José Eduardo Mautone, professor of space engineering at Federal University of Minas Gerais.
The US budget for NASA at the time facilitated the project. It is estimated that the Americans have spent, in 12 years, about US$ 120 billion (current values) with the Apollo program.
NASA’s expenses in relation to total US spending were significantly higher than those currently recorded. According to a survey by the British newspaper The Guardian, in 1966 NASA received 4.4% of all US government spending. In 2019 it was about 0.44%.
Now, 52 years after Neil Armstrong planted the US flag on the Moon, humans want to step back onto Earth’s natural satellite — it remains to be seen which will be the first country (China joined the battle) or the first company to get there.
If man has already reached the lunar surface once, why not just copy the 1960s design? Danton Villas Boas, doctor in space sciences and technologies from ITA (Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica), believes that it would not be possible to manufacture a Saturn V again.
“Probably, there are no more production units. The production tools at that time and the engineers and technicians who were trained to manufacture and assemble the rocket must no longer be working,” he says.
To make Space Race 2.0 even more competitive, two billionaires with inflated egos are vying with each other, and with the world as an audience, who will build the vehicle that will take NASA astronauts to the Moon and Mars and who will be responsible for popularizing space .
On one side is Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man according to the Forbes 2021 list, and owner of retail giant Amazon and space aircraft company Blue Origin. On the other, Elon Musk, second richest man in the world and owner of SpaceX.
The man who has a few billion dollars less in his account seems to have the upper hand. Space X defeated Blue Origin in the US space agency’s bid to build the rocket that will take American astronauts to the moon. NASA will pay $2.9 billion for the service.
The trip will be made using the reusable Starship rocket, which is being tested in Texas. The vehicle will have a height of 120 meters and a payload exceeding one hundred tons.
At the same time, NASA has been developing its own rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), with the aim of reaching the Moon in 2024. The vehicle, despite not being reusable, will use part of the technology of the American space shuttles, launched from 1981 to 2011.
In 2021, the SLS will be tested in a smaller version than scheduled for three years from now — block 1 will have 98 meters and a payload of 95 tons, while block 2 will be 108 meters and transport 130 tons into low earth orbit .
The idea is that the two vehicles (SLS and Starship) will be used in the lunar mission.
According to Villas Boas, the rockets currently under development depart with a different mission than Apollo. At the time, Saturn V should have been launched with all the necessary payload, heading for the Moon. Now, NASA’s idea is to build a kind of space station close to the Moon, which will serve as a stopover for astronauts on their way to the satellite of the Earth.
“SLS is a much more current technology and the concept is different. Saturn V used to take everything in the same rocket, but now it will have this station that will stock supplies. Contrary to what it used to be, going to the moon should be a long-term activity, I imagine the Americans should continue to explore this on an ongoing basis.”
In the space dispute, one of the countries that star in Cold War 2.0 is still out there, China, whose ally is Russia —the pillar of the former USSR. The two opponents of the Americans plan to build a permanent research base at the south pole of the Moon by 2030.
For José Mautone, there are doubts about the alliance. “The Chinese are thinking about teaming up with the Russians, but we don’t know how much confidence each has in the other. But it’s a good competitor, they’re moving steadily forward. this space station [atualmente, sendo instalada pela China] showed that the technology they are using is modern. The Chinese are doing everything to reach the goal”, he says.
The professor also explains that current launchers already reach Mars. However, the challenge goes beyond the kilometers traveled: when it comes to a manned mission, it is necessary to transport a huge load to the neighboring planet.
“The mission to Mars, with the rockets we have today, will take more than a year. If they take nine months to go, stay on Mars for a while, and take another nine months to get back, they’ll have to have supplies to support the crew, even if it’s small.”
If the Moon still seems distant to Jeff Bezos, space tourism is already very close, according to the billionaire. Blue Origin has been developing the New Glenn, a reusable rocket that promises to take civilians into space and has already cost the billionaire $2.5 billion.
The technology does not yet have a date set to work, but recently Bezos caught the attention of the world’s media when he made a suborbital flight using a vehicle developed by his company.
In this story, another billionaire takes the field. Days before the Bezos show, British businessman Richard Branson had already made a suborbital flight on his Virgin Galactic company’s VSS Umity rocket, which also wants to make space popular.
“I really hope there are millions of kids around the world who are captivated and inspired about the possibility of one day going to space,” says Branson on his company’s website.
Despite the billionaires’ wishes, there is still no scheduled date for space travel to become popular. The challenges come up against the costs of the journeys.
“The big bottleneck we currently have is the cost per kilogram placed in low Earth orbit. Currently, this value is around US$ 10 thousand per kilogram placed in orbit. To become economically efficient, this cost should be reduced to US$1,000”, says Mautone
While everything is still forecast, it remains for us to keep our feet on the Earth’s ground.