Beijing, We Have a Space Program

China's latest launch of a three-person spacecraft shows the East moving well ahead of the once dominant West

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At this moment, NASA’s Curiosity rover is crawling over the surface of Mars, making one remarkable discovery after another about the Red Planet’s possibly life-friendly past. The Hubble Space Telescope, aging but still going strong, is probing ever deeper into the universe. The Cassini mission to Saturn is unlocking the secrets of the Solar System’s second-largest planet and its moons.

The unmanned half of America’s space program, in short, is doing amazing things. But as China’s launch of a three-person spacecraft into earth orbit aboard a Long March 2-F rocket just made clear, our manned space program is not just limping along, it’s trailing behind even a comparative space race newbie. True, NASA astronauts have been doing important work aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — but they haven’t been able to use NASA hardware to get to and from the station since 2011, when the Atlantis made the final space-shuttle flight in history.

Instead, U.S. spacefarers have to hitch rides aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. In fact, NASA just inked a deal with the Russians to pay $424 million for six seats on Soyuz craft through 2016 — or a tidy $70 million per seat. They may also work out a deal with the private SpaceX corporation, which successfully delivered supplies to the ISS last year with an unmanned spacecraft. Space entrepreneur Elon Musk hopes to begin transporting astronauts to the station as early as next year — and undercut the Russians while doing so.

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But if the space agency wants to use its own rockets to send astronauts to the space station — or to the moon, or anywhere else — it’ll have to wait until 2016 at the earliest, when its Orion space capsule, still under development, could make its first crewed flight. For that to happen, however, NASA also has to build a new booster rocket; once the agency began to use on the space shuttle back in the early 1970s, it let its expertise in old-fashioned rocketry lapse. The planned new heavy-lift booster — called, prosaically enough, the Space Launch System — won’t be available until 2017 at best. And don’t count on either target actually being met. Ever since the end of the Apollo glory days, deadlines — on the manned side of the NASA ledger, at least — have been more like mere suggestions.

While NASA is stuck in a holding pattern, meanwhile, the Chinese are moving slowly but steadily forward with their own human spaceflight program. This week’s launch of two men and one woman into orbit aboard the Shenzhou 10 capsule is the third time China has sent a three-person crew into space; the first came in 2008 and the second last year. Those were preceded by two other manned missions — a two-person spacecraft in 2005 and one person in 2003. In 2011, China sent a small uncrewed space station into orbit as well, giving their spacefarers a place to go. That’s not likely to be the end of it, either: the Chinese have announced their intention to put up a full-size space station by the end of this decade, and ultimately to send astronauts to the moon.

And despite the more than 40-year lead both the U.S. and Russia have over China in sending humans to space, it’s not a stretch to think they could be kicking up lunar dust before we do. Russia’s human spaceflight program, which looked to be pulling ahead of ours in the late 1980s, largely collapsed along with the Soviet Union itself (although its low-tech, sturdy Soyuz capsules are still holding up).

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The U.S. program, meanwhile, petered out due simply to lack of commitment and lack of vision. America still thinks big, as evidenced by a recently unveiled proposal to tow an asteroid into orbit near the moon for future mining missions, which sounds harebrained and may well be, but at least shows imagination.

But while we’re thinking and talking big, other nations are thinking less, talking less — and quietly moving ahead.

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