For the first time ever, China has launched more rockets into orbit in a year than the U.S. In 2011, the Chinese sent 19 rockets into space. The U.S. sent just 18. Russia, the Walmart of space launches, fired off no fewer than 31 rockets.
The numbers, parsed in recent reports from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the nonprofit Space Foundation, might seem to herald America’s orbital decline relative to its most bitter rival. In terms of sheer numbers of rocket launches, China has been steadily catching up to America for several years. In 2010, China fired off 15 rockets, matching the U.S. for the first time.
But the raw figures obscure the real trends. Beijing is not about to catch up to Washington in space. For starters, the U.S. government spends more money than any other country on space launches and spacecraft: nearly $50 billion, compared to just $25 billion or so for all other governments combined. With its huge financial advantage and the technological edge, Washington is projected to possess the biggest space arsenal for decades to come.