One of the more surprising things someone said to me in recent years was that ‘Ireland has a decent space industry’. The fact that the comment came from the head of the space agency of a large European country, and we were sitting together in a bus in the Middle East adds some lustre to the observation.
There is a budding space industry in Ireland, to match its large aircraft sector and this had me wondering whether someday Ireland will send a man or woman to Mars!
The images that NASA’s Perseverance probe have sent back to earth reinforce the sense of wonder created by previous probes (about ten craft or probes have landed on Mars) and remind us of both the power of technology and the possibilities that space opens up.
While the Perseverance ‘trip’ cost close to a total of USD 3bn and the journey lasted about seven months, a human voyage to Mars is estimated to cost closer to USD 500bn and depending on the corresponding orbits of the earth and Mars, between seven to nine months.
It was thought that the mental toll of spending seven months cramped in a space craft would be too much for even well trained astronauts, but following the COVID-19 confinement, you might say we are all astronauts now! Until someone is courageous enough to make the journey, we will see more and more robots visit Mars, and more interesting experiments such as attempts to grow plants on Mars and to develop oxygen machines fit for use on Mars.
With NASA very much to the forefront in landing rovers on Mars, a number of countries are also in the process of executing or planning missions to Mars – Japan, India, the EU are chief amongst them. Russia first drew up plans to send humans to Mars in the 1960’s, and China is expected to land a probe on Mars in May whilst the UAE is a new player with its Amal probe. A number of private companies – SpaceX being prominent – are also getting in on the space exploration (and commerce) game.
The race for space is potentially part of a bigger trend which I will call the ‘scramble for rare places’. This is taking various forms – a race for safe parts of the planet such as the notional billionaire’s New Zealand mountain lair (please do watch the film ‘Goodbye to 2020’…and New Zealand also has a space industry), a race for space and the scientific and mineral gains this may produce, a race for the deep oceans and relatedly a race for the Arctic.
In particular the Arctic is interesting – it is overseen by the Arctic Council (Canada, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, the United States and Denmark) for its strategic location, its role as a gauge of climate damage and relatedly the opening up of shipping routes by melting ice.
Geopolitically it is a vital place – a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag under the Arctic in 2007 (interestingly Russia’s leading Arctic scientist has been charged with spying for China), and Denmark has recently acted to beef up its military presence in the Faroe Islands and Greenland.
Reflecting Thomas Pakenham’s book ‘The Scramble for Africa’ (which is happening again by the way) the scramble for rare places has a strong strategic impetus, has dubious ecological side-effects and may ultimately have serious negative side-effects (again, an understatement in the case of Africa).
This ‘scramble’ reflects a world where cooperation between nations is becoming increasingly strained, where large chunks of economic activity are dependent on select natural resources (rare earths) and where, in some parts, rules of the game (space and the Arctic) are not open to interpretation.
To draw in the thread of last week’s note, it also reflects great power ‘Great Games’ on steroids. In the Great Game of the 19th century British and Russian spies crossed paths in Isfahan and Bukhara, now they will orbit each other around Mars, glide past each other in sub-Arctic mini submarines, or meet on exclusive ranches on the Argentine plains.
Like the Great Game, it’s all potentially fascinating but likely costly too.
Have a great week ahead,