The Space Race of the 2020s

Is there a Space Race happening right now? It’s hard for me to believe, but some people doubt this. This article provides some evidence as well as concrete goals.

Anybody who knows me personally understands how intense of a person I am, and my skills of being able to research into topics and technologies. And, I have been interested in space — intensely interested — since I was 8 years old. I’m 43 now, so that means I have been intensely aware of what’s been happening globally with space exploration for the past 35 years.

Right now I am seeing more positive activity towards our future in space than I have ever seen in my life. Let me take you through what I mean…

A Space Race to me refers to a race by two or more countries (or companies/organizations) towards a specific goal. There is evidence for multiple space races wherever you look today. Countries like China, companies like SpaceX, and organizations like NASA and Roscosmos are sprinting towards space goals.

Here is a broad set of goals that are being raced to:

The Moon

Mankind landed on the moon first in 1969 and last in 1972, but it was a very limited program of human exploration: only 6 sites, all of which clustered in a region facing the Earth (the near-side) and at mid-latitudes. One could argue that those landings, while exciting in an of themselves, did not occur at exciting places.

The discovery of water in 2009 at the lunar south pole, and the long-known viability of the far side of the moon for radio astronomy makes those places more interesting destinations. That’s why China recently landed a robotic lander & rover on the far side. During that mission, they also grew the first plants on the Moon. How can one think they are not racing to the Moon?

The Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, recently announced that NASA would go back to the moon (with humans) by 2024 and would land on the lunar south pole, because that’s where water resources can be found. NASA, who already had a goal of a lunar return, is now racing to create & lock plans to get American boots on the Moon (including the first woman on the Moon) within 5 years. Other countries I’m sure are noticing this.

I see those two examples as two gauntlets thrown down for others to work towards, and they will.

Here are the future goals for the lunar race that I see:

  1. Land the first human on the Moon since 1972.
  2. Land the first woman on the Moon.
  3. Land a mission (human or robotic) on the lunar south pole for the first time.
  4. Put a permanent space station in orbit around the Moon. (NASA’s Lunar Gateway plan is one example.)
  5. Land a large cargo on the Moon for the first time. (Also something NASA is quickly working towards.)
  6. Land a mission on the far-side, in response to the recent Chinese mission.

And finally, something that has been dreamed of and discussed since the 1950s:

7. Create a permanent human base on the Moon.

All of these are real goals that are being worked towards today.


In my opinion, there is no bigger challenge for today’s modern & technical society than to send the first human mission to Mars. It’s a goal that would inspire the world to achieve even more audacious things afterwards. The red planet beckons as humanity’s future second home, and a place unique in the rest of the solar system having all the resources and materials to host human life and a modern technological civilization. Mars has gravity (38% of Earth’s), an atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide), abundant sources of liquid water beneath and (recently discovered) on the surface. Mars has a day-night cycle slightly over 24 hours, and (surprisingly) a total land area equal to Earth’s (since the Earth is mostly water).

Mars is a clear destination for human space exploration and quite frankly something we should have achieved already. Werner Von Braun had a credible plan for sending humans to Mars just after the Apollo mission but it was not funded by the Nixon administration (they decided to build the Space Shuttle instead). Dr. Robert Zubrin presented his Mars Direct plan in 1989 while NASA had the goal of landing on Mars from President George Bush (Sr.), but to this date it has never been seriously funded.

Yet, there is clear evidence that a human Mars race is on.

China recently built a $500 million Mars analog station in the Gobi desert, apparently in response to the Mars Society & NASA’s analog research programs. They have their sights on Mars; when I look at this picture, I have no doubt about that.

SpaceX is building the Starship & Super Heavy (the rocket system formerly known as “BFR”) which will use the cutting-edge Raptor engine design. I heard directly from SpaceX’s Tom Muller at the ISDC conference last year that “Raptor is coming” and that it would eclipse SpaceX’s Merlin engine as the world’s most powerful and most efficient engine. A Raptor was recently test-fired at SpaceX’s Boca Chica test site in southern Texas, and the Super Heavy will make use of 31 of them together. That’s a lot of space firepower and it’s meant to send humans to Mars (as well as back to the Moon).

Here are the clear goals for a Mars race:

  1. Land the first human on Mars.
  2. Flyby Mars with a human crew for the first time.
  3. Orbit Mars with a human crew for the first time.
  4. Land a mission (human or robotic) on the moons of Mars: Phobos and Deimos.
  5. Land a large cargo mission on Mars (perhaps to begin creating oxygen and methane rocket fuel from the indigenous resources, a technique called In-Situ Resource Utilization or ISRU.)
  6. Return the first samples from Mars. (Which NASA is already beginning to lay the groundwork with the Mars 2020 Rover and a full robotic Sample Return mission in upcoming budget requests.)
  7. Grow the first plants on Mars (as Matt Damon’s character from The Martian movie would say: To Colonize Mars. “In your face Neal Armstrong!”) — by the way, Elon Musk wanted to do this prior to founding SpaceX.

And finally, to complete our settlement of a new world:

8. Create a permanent human base on Mars.

The Mars Society has been piloting a concept of a permanent base for several years with our analog research program. I was fortunate last year to be part of Crew 197 at the Mars Desert Research Station.

The Outer Planets, Moons, and Trans-Neptunian Objects

One could also easily come up with goals for a race to the outer solar system.

Recently, the United States sent the first mission to Pluto. The New Horizons probe was also able to explore the most distant object in the solar system, Ultima Thule, which was the first contact binary observed closely by humans.

Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, appears to be another water world (like Earth), with a frozen shell of a top layer, but a global ocean underneath. What wonders we may find underneath the ice of Europa. If you believe (as many do) that life requires liquid water to develop, and further that wherever there is liquid water there is a good chance for life, then Europa’s ocean is a prime target for the search for life in the universe. Forget SETI, send a mission to Europa!

Titan (the largest moon of Saturn) and Enceladus (another frozen water world) are also prime targets. Titan in many ways resembles an early version of Earth, with liquid methane on the surface and filling the thick atmosphere. In fact, Titan’s atmosphere is so thick, we couldn’t even see the surface until recently. There is much to learn about our home planet’s workings and global climate change by exploring Titan. We have already send a probe to land on Titan in 2005 — the Huygens probe as part of the Cassini mission — but it only functioned for 90 minutes on the surface. We can do better next time!

Here are some outer solar system goals, and there will be many more in the future after these are met — goals that involve human exploration:

  1. Put an orbiter around Europa for the first time.
  2. Land the first robotic probe on Europa.
  3. Drill into the Europan ice crust and explore the global ocean with robotic probes.(Submarine fleet!)
  4. Put an orbiter around the other large moons of Jupiter (such as Ganymede, Io and Callisto.)
  5. Land a probe on those other large moons of Jupiter.
  6. Put an orbiter around Titan.
  7. Put a robust lander that can function long-term on the surface of Titan.
  8. Put an orbiter around Enceladus.
  9. Land on Enceladus.
  10. Land on Pluto or Charon.
  11. Explore the other large Trans-Neptunian Objects in the outer solar system such as Eris (which is larger than Pluto), Makemake, Quaoar, Orcus, Sedna, Varuna and Haumea.

I could go on, but you get the point. Our solar system has much still to explore — and in many ways, we are just getting started.

So, in closing, I believe not only is there one Space Race happening right now, there are many. The evidence is all around us and will continue to be present, if you know where to look.

A Space Race does not necessarily need to be a competition. If Russia or China gets people to Mars before the United States, I will be sad for a moment but also prideful for their achievement. After all, I have been working at that goal as part of the Mars Society for 21 years. So, I will cheer on all countries, companies, and organizations that attempt that goal, and all the others I’ve mentioned.

Let’s work together as brothers and sisters of the human race to accomplish these goals, for all humanity. We will all benefit greatly as a result… maybe the most important thing we will benefit from is realizing how special our home planet is, and having a better perspective on how it works, so we can make sure we take good care of it.

By James L. Burk

James is the Executive Director of The Mars Society and a former Microsoft manager. He lives in Sammamish, WA (a suburb of Seattle) with his wife and two daughters.