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Will China shame the US back to strong space program?



Published: Tue, January 3, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

Many of today’s maturing baby boomers cling to fond childhood memories of elementary-school assemblies where they’d sit knee-to-knee on freshly waxed floors and peer intently onto small-screen black and white TV sets to witness the dawn of the American space age. During those exciting Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches in the 1960s and early ’70s, enthusiasm, adventure and national pride united them.

A sense of fierce competitiveness with the then Soviet Union also energized those children and most all Americans. After all, the Soviets, through their launch of Sputnik I in 1957, essentially shamed the United States into its massive, multi-trillion-dollar goal-oriented journey into outer space. When Ohioan Neil Armstong made his historic “small step for man” but “giant leap for mankind” onto the lunar surface in July 1969, America celebrated its come-from-behind victory with boundless elation and gratification.

Much has changed in space science and in the world order in the ensuing five decades. The Soviet Union has crumbled, its leading nation Russia has long lost its superpower lustre, China has emerged as a daunting global force and the government-sanctioned manned space program in the United States has become a mere shadow of its former robust and glorious self.

So much so, in fact, that some may wonder whether history may repeat itself in the 21st century. This time, could it be China that will shame the United States back into a serious program of space exploration and conquest?

CHINA’S AGGRESSIVE 5-YEAR PLAN

Just last week, China announced plans for an aggressive state-sponsored program to launch space labs and prepare to build space stations over the next five years.

The country says it will continue its exploration of the moon using probes, start gathering samples of the moon’s surface, land an astronaut on the lunar surface and “push forward its exploration of planets, asteroids and the sun.”

Contrast those ambitious goals with those of the U.S. space program. Funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been decimated in the current federal budget, plans for a return to the moon and other ambitious missions have been scrubbed or substantially cut back, thousands of talented NASA workers have lost their jobs and America’s working space program largely has been privatized.

Just last week, NASA announced that a private California company — SpaceX — will attempt the first-ever commercial cargo run to the International Space Station in February. The unmanned Dragon capsule will fly to the space station and dock with a load of supplies. While we wish success for the project, any failures or problems will undoubtedly reflect more profoundly on the pride of this country, not the profits of the Paypal-tied company.

Indeed China cites the effect on national pride as well worth the cost of its massive investment. Its space program already has made major breakthroughs in a relatively short time, and it is on track to replace the U.S. as the leader in space-station development.

Will we care? To be sure, much has changed in the U.S. since the launch of Mercury I, not the least of which is decreasing awe over 60 years of almost routinized manned space travel. One thing that has not changed, however, is that fierce competitiveness and drive for achievement that energized millions of American schoolchildren of the ‘60s.

Washington bureaucrats and congressional delegations would do well to remember that when debating the dollars and sense of the future course of America’s once-proud space agency.


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