Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang goes for a spacewalk.

The space race is intensifying and China seems to be many people’s favourites to reach Mars first, writes Science, Health and Technology Editor Alan Coughlan.

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on another world. Being that it was our moon, a vast sphere of rock and dust with no atmosphere, there was no point in or possibility of staying. This first step, despite coming a mere eight years after Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, may one day be viewed as the beginning of our salvation.

At the time of the Apollo program, Nasa were confident in the continuation of space exploration and had their eyes firmly set on a manned landing on Mars by 1986. However, budget cuts meant that the Apollo program was cut short after Apollo 17 and no one has set foot on the moon since 1972. In fact, no one has been that far from Earth since then.

The program was scrapped due to the huge financial strain it had put on America and now that they had beaten the Russians to the moon, there seemed little need for more posturing on the international stage. Not only was this a huge blow for Nasa and science in general, it put humankind firmly back on the ground with little prospect of ever venturing upwards and outwards again.

In today’s economic climate, it is almost impossible to argue for money to be spent on space exploration. With the wealth of the planet being so unequally spread along with the great threat of climate change, one could be forgiven for wanting all time and effort spent on the ground solving more real and tangible problems. For many though, space exploration is not merely a dream or fascination but a means to a far greater end than any of us could ever imagine.

Earlier this year, President Obama announced the cancellation of Nasa’s constellation program, which would hopefully have put humans on Mars. It was adventurous and meant that human space exploration would reach a new level, but fiscally, it seemed ludicrous. It has been estimated that $1 trillion, used properly and efficiently, could effectively rid the world of hunger. To spend so much money on space travel now seems foolish, but Nasa seem to persevere with their explorations.

In the wake of Obama’s cuts, Nasa has unveiled plans to put humans onto an asteroid near Earth, which could potentially be just as much of a leap forward as a trip to Mars.

A-type asteroids contain many precious metals that could in theory be mined and used as a stepping-stone to the stars. In fact, only recently Nasa announced plans towards launching a manned orbit of the moon from the international space station.  This is to test the viability of assembling spacecraft in orbit.

If one was to bet on who will reach Mars first, “the smart money is on China,” according to Dr Duncan Steel, a space technology expert. China has a goal to achieve, not only domestically, but also internationally. They have hunger for Mars in a similar manner to how the US and Russia had a thirst for the moon. Even though they have no real opponents at the moment, there are more space-faring nations than ever before.

Couple all of this with the emergence of private enterprise (Virgin Galactic, the Ansari X prize) into the mix and we do really have a new space race. The price of space technology has plummeted in recent years, and we can hope that ideas will flow more freely now, so that more people than ever can literally reach for the stars.

Space exploration has become as much a political activity as an exploratory one. During the Cold War, the race to the moon became one of many conflicts that Russia and the US were engaged in. With China entering the space race, this new superpower looks set to make its mark, both politically and in space.

Space exploration may not directly or wholly enrich any singular generation. Essentially, it is something that will need to be treaded out across centuries, if not millennia, with each new generation achieving something greater than that of the preceding one. It is only in small steps towards escaping the local neighbourhood of our own solar system that the human race can be guaranteed survival.

As Stephen Hawking says: “Spreading out into space will completely change the future of the human race and maybe determine whether we have any future at all.”  In the grand and vast expanse of time, Earth’s ability to support life is limited.

Whether we as a race destroy ourselves, the planet or even live to when the sun expands and scorches us alive, our long-term survival and destiny lies elsewhere. What rightfully seems irresponsible in terms of spending now, could very well be the first steps towards that survival. One cannot talk about this in simple terms. There has to be a grand vision involved. A vision coupled with humility that we don’t and cannot know what the future holds, but also what can be achieved.

Who, at the beginning of the 20th century, could have ever imagined possible or even conceived of commercial flight, atomic power or even a man on the moon?  It is only through deep reverence for these achievements that the small steps, from Earth to moon to Mars or beyond, reveal their significance. Perhaps it should be worth concentrating on one simple idea: that the achievement of migration towards the stars might just allow the human race to survive indefinitely.