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The New Space Age: Could we be on the way to driving in space?

It seems every other week, we hear news about something involving space. Whether it’s new rockets under development or the very first photo of a black hole, it feels like the universe is getting just that tiny bit smaller.

This hasn’t been something new, of course. Ever since the Space Race era that began in the 1950s and pitted the U.S. against the Soviet Union, humanity has fought gravity to become a spacefaring species. Still, its ambition may have been greater than its ability to stay among the stars back then.

The Space Race effectively ended decades ago, but it seems a new Space Age is about to pick up in force. This time, it’s making the fantasy more accessible with commercial spaceflights being touted as the next big step in exploration. Between Virgin Galactic’s second spaceflight and the recent space station resupply mission run by SpaceX, there’s a new Space Race brewing (though now between giant companies headed by Richard Branson and Elon Musk), and it matters because it won’t just be astronauts rocketing off to the deep black ocean. It’s open to everyone.

So, how far along are we from living outside of the Earth and driving SUVs on the moon and on Mars? Well, we’re not quite going to be like Star Wars yet (you can start reading up on the history of Star Wars here, by the way), but it’s already likely that we’re closer to it than ever.

In fact, it’s looking good enough that Toyota entered an agreement with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to fast track their study on the feasibility of building a vehicle for the moon. The first project in this collaboration began last year, and it was the study for a manned, pressurized rover meant to help astronauts explore the lunar surface or the surface of another planet.

It’s basically still a study at this point, and it still needs to be able to house astronauts without their suits on, let them enter and exit with suits, and allow them to live inside for short periods. There are a lot of problems to solve, but we do have a glimpse of the initial concept.

The Toyota moon rover / Photo credit: Toyota

“Lunar gravity is one-sixth of that on Earth. Meanwhile, the moon has a complex terrain with craters, cliffs, and hills. Moreover, it is exposed to radiation and temperature conditions that are much harsher than those on Earth, as well as an ultra-high vacuum environment. For wide ranging human exploration of the moon, a pressurized rover that can travel more than 10,000 km in such environments is a necessity. Toyota’s ‘space mobility’ concept meets such mission requirements. Toyota and JAXA have been jointly studying the concept of a manned, pressurized rover since May of 2018,” says JAXA Vice President Koichi Wakata.

Okay, so it’s not exactly a Fortuner for space or an FJ Cruiser on steroids, but it’s going to be so much cooler (and will likely cost just about as cool as it sounds). It isn’t going to be the first land-based manned vehicle in space, though.

The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) claimed that honor in 1971, when it was used on the moon for the first time by the Apollo 15 astronauts. The LRV was basically an open-air (open-vacuum?) buggy.

The Toyota rover will be a pressurized vehicle that can go on longer missions, so that would make it quite a bit more useful. Also, the first LRV had, roughly, a whopping top speed of about 11mph, so Toyota will likely be able to beat it in a race if there’s ever a moon-based version of the Le Mans.

And that might be more possible than we think, because the original LRV and its two successors—the LRV from Apollo 16 and the LRV from Apollo 17—are still on the moon. They’re parked right up there with the Lunakhod 1 and Lunakhod 2, which were the Soviet cars of the Space Race, though both were remote-controlled vehicles.

The Lunar Roving Vehicle from Apollo 15 / Photo credit: NASA

Meanwhile, NASA is developing a space rover of its own, and this one has set its eyes on Mars. Like the Toyota moon rover, it’s still basically a concept, though a prototype has been built. Off the bat, it looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, especially since it was designed by the Parker Brothers, who also designed the motorcycles from Tron: Legacy.

It’s got six wheels, a glove box for Martian soil samples, and a detachable laboratory in the back. It’s more Batman than The Martian, but being a prototype, it isn’t likely to go to Mars, anyway, and will stay in NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It does serve as a good inspiration for future designs, though, and it’s also likely that companies like SpaceX will be making a few of their own. Meanwhile, you can watch a video of the guys from Aston Martin as they try out NASA’s Mars Rover.

While we’re talking about cars in space, we have to mention the most recent one, which was just last year. During SpaceX’s launch of the Falcon Heavy Rocket, they brought along a Tesla Roadster as the dummy payload, sending it into space crewed by a mannequin called Starman dressed in a SpaceX space suit.

It was Elon Musk’s personal roadster, and sure, it’s not going to do much in space, but they did put a copy of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the glove and set David Bowie’s Space Oddity on continuous loop over the radio as the background (maybe aliens can hear sound even in space). If nothing else, Musk gets points for style.

Live views of Starman from SpaceX

Still, this could be a precursor to the dream: the ambassador of the hope that humans will finally be able to venture to the stars. Not as visitors, but as migrants from Earth.

There’s still a lot to be worked on—technology, feasibility, international rights—but the new Space Race is likely to go much further than before. And with cars already being developed, you know it’s going to run for a long while yet. So, welcome the new Space Age, humanity, we hope you enjoy your stay. Because you might not be staying on Earth for much longer.