For China, the moon is just another new market waiting to be developed. The country is investing heavily in a five-year plan to become a world leader in space exploration, with dreams of one day reaching beyond earth’s lone satellite to Mars and Venus. To get there, the China National Space Administration has already launched two unmanned orbiters and plans to build a manned space station by 2020.
There’s more behind China’s investment than simply wanting to show off its growing superpower status. Lunar soil is rich in metals like gold and platinum, rare-earth elements, and helium-3—all of which could one day be mined. There’s also water on the moon, and a base could provide a launch site for further missions.
Other countries are also adopting a business-minded attitude toward space. The U.S. government’s strategy is now looking at putting man on an asteroid. To achieve this, President Obama is encouraging more private investment to make flights “easier and more affordable.”
The world’s space programs haven’t always been so focused on cost-benefit analysis. The space race between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. linked space domination to superior national security and technology. There was also delight in the unknown. President Kennedy’s “race to the moon” speech in 1961 received an enthusiastic public response. By contrast, current Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s idea to colonize the moon if elected was met with jeers.
It may now be impossible to separate economic gains from our desire to reach the final frontier, but the rise of space tourism may bring back some of the lustre. For $200,000, eager “astronaut customers” soon will be able to take suborbital spaceflights and bounce around in low gravity. No spacesuit required.