Seventeen people who inhabit space. It happened just for a few hours and it's worth more for the statistics, but it is still a record, bound to be broken soon. When it was 8:30 in the morning of May 30 in Italy, the shuttle that took off six hours earlier from Inner Mongolia docked at the Chinese space station Tiangong. The entry of the three taikonauts brought the number of tenants of the "Heavenly Palace" to six.
It happened while at the same altitude, in the International Space Station (ISS) four of the 11 occupants were intent on packing to return to Earth. A quick crossing, however, tells a lot, of two opposing and balanced blocks that are defining themselves 400 kilometers above our heads: "The term space race has been around since the 1960s, now the Eastern Bloc has moved even further, because China has made tremendous progress in very little time - explains F. Giacomo Carrozzo, INAF astronomer and author of the book New worlds. Humankind's Odyssey: From Sapiens to Starmen - while the 'Western bloc' (which however also includes Japan) is proceeding quickly thanks also to private individuals".
The four departing are in fact the members of Mission 2 of Axiom, the private company that organizes trips to the International Space Station. The commander is Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut, a veteran of space travel. With her were another American, the businessman John Paul Shoffner, who disbursed an amount of around 55 million dollars for a week on the ISS, e two Saudi astronauts, Ali AlQarni and the first woman from that country to land in orbit, Rayyanah Barnawi. On board the Shenzhou one of the seats was instead occupied by Gui Haichao, first civilian taikonaut never landed there.
"Space has become a place to do business, this opens up new scenarios, there are those who want to get to Mars, like Musk, those who instead invest in low orbit like Branson with Virgin Galactic or companies to build private space stations - continues Carrozzo - NASA in the meantime finances private individuals who take a risk and without whom things would be much slower".
It's true for SpaceX's transportation service, and it's also true for the moon, towards which the competition is flaring up. Just yesterday, Lin Xiqiang, deputy director of the Chinese Space Agency for Human Flight, confirmed that the goal will be to bring the first taikonauts to walk on our natural satellite by 2030. NASA fears overtaking and has every intention of making it sooner.
The mission Artemis III to bring the first woman to the moon is still scheduled for the end of 2025, provided that Elon Musk with his SpaceX manages to develop the Starship shuttle in time, which after the April fireworks is now grappling with an investigation by the American Flight Agency in order to be able to go back to testing.
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The Moon: a geopolitical issue
And on this front new balances will be measured: "The ISS is still an extraordinary peace machine - underlines the Inaf researcher - where the West continues a collaboration with Russia that is impossible on Earth. With the Chinese, however, there are tensions. Everyone has their own space station and there's no question of collaborating. China's entry into the competition could become a geopolitical problem". While Moscow has ensured support for the International Space Station until 2028, it has however entered into agreements with China for lunar exploration.
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The two blocs are formed and what will happen in the next few years in terms of a new "world" to colonize is still an unknown. Especially because interests all converge in the same place, the South Pole of our satellite. And the premises are not encouraging.
"There is ice, water, resources to survive and to generate hydrogen and oxygen as a propellant - concludes Carrozzo - there is helium-3, which could be used for nuclear fusion. So it will be necessary to regulate those regions with laws. Even for private businesses. Instead, some time ago the head of the Chinese lunar program said: 'In the days of the Ming dynasty we lost control of the sea, now the sea is the Universe'. Their strategy is one of conquest."
On the other hand, already in 2020, US President Trump, with an executive order declaring that the US does not see space as a "global commons", as a common good. So resources, the wealth that can derive from the exploitation of space resources, belong to whoever arrives first.