The US space agency has just turned 60, and is busy making plans for a return to manned missions and setting its sights on Mars and beyond. The new goals come at an exciting time for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as Nasa, and space exploration. Established on July 29, 1958, Nasa had a dual mission: Take on the Soviet Sputnik challenge, most immediately, and go where no man has gone before. In the words of one senator: "The limits of the job are no less than the limits of the universe." Much has changed since Nasa's challenging start. America's competitive spirit remains, as seen in the push to return to the Moon, the plans for Mars missions and even for a United States Space Force. But there is much greater collaboration too, with private enterprise such as SpaceX and many other nations. Nasa is now just one of many players in an increasingly crowded field.
By one estimate, about 70 countries are involved in some form of space-related activity. They include big hitters such as Russia, China and the European Union as well as a burgeoning club of smaller nations, including Singapore. Technology has driven this change, shrinking the size of planetary probes and satellites and the cost of deploying them even as it expands their numbers, range, versatility and level of sophistication. There are over 1,700 active satellites orbiting above Earth. Last year, one was launched from the International Space Station, the work of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University and Japan's Kyushu Institute of Technology. The nano-satellite weighed just 2kg. Singapore may soon be among a pioneering group of countries to deploy a fleet of tiny satellites flying in formation and doing the job of bigger ones, much faster and cheaper too.