Future Tense

Your Cheat-Sheet Guide to the New Space Race

Who’s who in space exploration, the lingo you need to know, and more.

The International Space Station.

NASA/Crew of STS-132

Key Players

Peter Diamandis: Diamandis is an entrepreneur who has both helped drive the rise of commercial spaceflight and contributed to asteroid mining efforts—central to the space missions of countries like Luxembourg—through his company Planetary Resources.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton: A planetary scientist, Elkins-Tanton proposed an upcoming NASA mission to the asteroid Psyche, which might reveal a lot about the value of such objects, thereby forcing conversations about who owns extraterrestrial commodities. (Elkins-Tanton is the head of the School for Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, which is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.)


Newt Gingrich: A former speaker of the House and current adviser to Donald Trump, Gingrich has pushed the United States to privatize its space projects, which might further disrupt the governmental monopoly on space travel.


A.S. Kiran Kumar: A space scientist, Kumar serves as the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization.

Robert M. Lightfoot Jr.: Lightfoot currently serves as acting administrator of NASA under Donald Trump.

Gwynne Shotwell: Shotwell serves as president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, a company that has made important steps in the drive to private space flight, challenging its associations with nationalistic ambitions.

Johann-Dietrich Wörner: Wörner, the current director general of the European Space Agency, oversees a variety of intergovernmental projects.


Xu Dazhe: An aerospace engineer, Xu contributed to China’s growing space program when he served as chief administrator of the country’s National Space Administration until 2016.

International Space Station: Not a person, but a key character here nevertheless. The ISS launched in 1998, and according to NASA, “226 individuals from 18 countries” have spent time there.


Further Reading

China’s Growing Ambitions in Space,” by Marina Koren: Koren details Chinese attempts to catch up with other superpowers, and its quest to expand beyond the earth.

How to Make a Spaceship, by Julian Guthrie: This 2016 book explores a competition that aimed to jump-start private efforts toward human spaceflight.

A Place for One’s Mat,” by Gregory Kulacki and Jeffrey G. Lewis: This paper details the history of the Chinese space program from the mid-20th century into the early 21st.

A Pragmatic Approach to Sovereignty on Mars,” by Sara Bruhns and Jacob Haqq-Misra: Bruhns and Haqq-Misra lay out a series of policies that would allow multiple nations to establish permanent habitation on Mars while also preserving its status as a site of scientific inquiry.


Space Law 101,” by Matthew J. Kleiman: Kleiman describes the current state of space law and lays out some issues that it will need to account for in the future.

Trump Advisers’ Space Plan: To Moon, Mars and Beyond,” by Bryan Bender: This Politico piece reports on the new presidential administration’s calls for privatization of U.S. space efforts.


International cooperation: For decades, international treaties have enshrined collaborative standards for spacefaring countries. Will those norms persist as more countries announce their space ambitions? How will international conflicts complicate renewed efforts to reach for the stars?


Value of human flight: Sending astronauts off planet is expensive, difficult, and dangerous, and many argue that the benefits are more propagandistic than practical. Will such concerns outweigh our ambitions?


Space debris: Every time we send a rocket out of the atmosphere, we end up scattering more trash into orbit, and that junk can be dangerous, potentially disrupting satellites and otherwise wreaking havoc. As more nations and companies accelerate their extraterrestrial efforts, that problem will likely intensify. Can we reach for the heavens without getting our hands dirty?

Accelerated privatization: Long the provenance of government agencies, spaceflight has increasingly become the purview of private companies, especially in the United States. How will the rise of these for-profit organizations reshape the goals of the new space race?


Asteroid mining: The still-theoretical attempt—pursued by both private companies and countries such as Luxembourg—to extract precious metals and other commodities from asteroids.


Space law: A catchall term used to describe attempts to govern and regulate human activities in space.

Cislunar space: The area between Earth and the moon.

Electrolysis: A process that could be used to convert water into rocket fuel, potentially driving exploration of the solar system.

International Telecommunications Union: Also known as the ITU, this United Nations agency helps regulate satellite positions.


Nanosatellites: Artificial satellites weighing less than 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds), sometimes deployed as part of a communicative swarm.

Outer Space Treaty: A 1967 U.N. document that regulates the behavior of—and cooperation between—countries and nongovernmental organizations in space

Pop Culture

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu: This award-winning novel imagines the aftereffects of a Chinese attempt to contact extraterrestrials during the cultural revolution.


The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott: In this film, a variety of nations collaborate to bring home an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars.

The Expanse: In this Syfy channel series, conflict arises between Earth, the asteroid belt, and the outer planets after the colonization of the solar system.

Nigerians in Space, by Deji Bryce Olukotun: This novel tells the story of a geologist tasked with stealing part of the moon.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI: The latest installment of this long-running video game series lets players win by setting up a human colony on Mars.

Mooncop, by Tom Gauld: This short graphic novel follows a police officer stranded on a lunar colony after most of the residents have headed home.

This article is part of the space installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrowEach month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State UniversityNew America, and Slate.