Since the space shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA, as the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration is better known, had relied on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, which has orbited Earth for two decades.
That changed in 2020 when billionaire Elon Musk’s company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, flew its first crewed missions, powered by reusable boosters that dramatically cut launch costs. Boeing Co.’s Starliner, a new capsule for astronauts designed to fly on the existing Atlas rocket, has been undergoing a major software revamp ahead of a planned second uncrewed test flight to the space station that NASA has scheduled for March. Depending on the outcome of that flight, Starliner may fly astronauts to the ISS later in 2021.
The first space race was a competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for national pride and military advantage. Now NASA is farming out missions to private companies, and other countries have joined the race — notably China and India.
The moon and Mars remain tantalizing goals for many nations, as are the technological advances that space exploration can drive.
Only Americans have set foot on the moon, and the last visit was almost a half-century ago. Now the U.S. and other nations are interested in returning. That’s because the race to the moon in the 1960s drove leaps in aerospace technology along with innovations such as camera sensors for mobile phones.
Advances in science since then mean a return will likely yield new insights into the origins of the moon and the solar system. National pride has motivated the programs, along with a desire to advance the commercialization of space.
The U.S. Apollo program that took the first men to the moon in 1969 cost $25.8 billion, or about $260 billion in inflation-adjusted terms, according to the Planetary Society.