As a young child, I remember watching the Apollo missions that sent men to the moon. I also remember having rocket and astronaut toys and drinking Tang, just like the astronauts did. Later on, having kept a strong fascination with the quest to put men on the moon, I was filled with pride that two of the twelve Americans who walked on the moon were Harrison Schmidt (Santa Clara) and Ed Mitchell (Artesia), both from my home state of New Mexico. From a goal that President John Kennedy had to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, the subject of spaceflight evolved greatly in the ensuing three decades. Unfortunately, the quest for space experienced a little lull after the last Space Shuttle flight was taken in 2011. However, the space race is on again and I was fortunate to have witnessed a bit of this personally.
On August 10, I was a guest at the launch of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceship at Spaceport America southeast of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. This launch was the first one undertaken by Virgin Galactic with paying passengers, a mother and daughter from Antigua, and an 80-year-old former Olympian from the United Kingdom. Spaceport America is in an isolated location in the southern New Mexico desert, abutting White Sands Missile Range, in order to provide for safety and plenty of room for launches. It was a beautiful morning as the spectators brimmed with excitement. At the appointed time, the spacecraft came speeding down the runway and took off into the air just like a jet airplane.
I watched the spacecraft as it climbed through the air higher and higher. At an appointed altitude, the rocket was ignited, and the capsule separated from the mother ship and headed into the atmosphere, contrails stretching back to the Earth. Eventually, I lost sight of the spacecraft, but the crowd was able to view video on a monitor inside the control room. After about an hour or so, the capsule positioned its wings and glided smoothly back to Earth. I was near the runway when it gently touched down where it had taken off. The crew was removed, and the spacecraft was towed back to its hangar. Meanwhile, the mother ship made a series of passes around the landing strip and also landed back to Earth.
The experience made me realize that space is so much more than a global competition between countries trying to use innovation to harness space for their own benefit. Space is literally universal, and important not only to the economic competitiveness of our nation, but to its safety. In 2018, China landed its Chang’e-4 rover on the dark side of the moon. It is currently conducting tests on the composition of the moon’s surface and sending data back to Chinese scientists on earth. Earlier this month, Russia launched its Luna-25 spacecraft, which contained a lunar rover that was to conduct experiments and tests on the moon. This was Russia’s first attempt at landing on the moon since 1976. By August 20, Russian media reported that the spacecraft had spun out of control and crashed into the moon, dooming the mission.
These lunar missions by countries antagonistic to the U.S. are not solely being conducted just for the human yearning to explore. They are being conducted to gain a competitive advantage on the U.S. in spaceflight and exploration. Meanwhile, the U.S. has adopted the strategy of NASA forging ahead with future lunar excursions, while private sector companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin develop their own rocket technology. Both of these companies see a future of humans routinely flying into space not only for travel, but for science.
Spaceport America is becoming a hub for rocket testing for companies from all over the world. Its restricted airspace, long landing strip, and high elevation give it an advantage over other sites in the U.S. It is also taking the lead in educating students about spaceflight. From June 19 to June 24, Spaceport America held the 2023 Spaceport America Cup in which 5,913 rocketeers from more than 150 colleges and universities, 26 countries, and six continents throughout the world competed to launch their hand-built rockets into space. This is the world’s largest intercollegiate event of its type, and it spurs budding rocket scientists to further develop mankind’s ability to leave Earth for space and other celestial destinations.
It is imperative that the U.S. keeps funding spaceflight. We are still the only nation that has successfully landed humans on the moon, although countries such as China are aiming to do so in the near future. We need to go back to the moon to gain knowledge, not only of its mysteries and possible benefits, but to further perfect the processes and technologies that allow us to get there. In the future, nations will continue to compete to be the innovators in space. While many people might criticize that space flights such as those recently undertaken by Virgin Galactic are only for the wealthy, the very fact that flight technology is being perfected is a benefit to the prospects of the U.S. in the future space competition.