Pacific Standard: A Great Leap Forward

25.10.12

Categorie: China, David Axe, Space |
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Getty image.

Getty image.

by DAVID AXE

On a Monday afternoon in June, belated history was made 213 miles above the Earth’s surface. At 2:07 p.m. Beijing time, the Chinese Shenzhou-9 space capsule, carrying three astronauts, plugged into a 31-inch-wide receptacle on China’s unoccupied Tiangong-1 space station. At the moment the two vehicles connected, by way of a yellow-painted latch, China became only the third nation, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union, to dock two spacecraft in orbit.

The first orbital linkups of American and Soviet spacecraft occurred in 1966 and 1967. To some observers, China’s third-place finish seems hopelessly late, and its overall space objectives almost quaint. “The U.S. and China are not racing in space, since the U.S. is so far ahead,” says James Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

But he, and others like him, could be very wrong. Beijing’s orbital ambitions may seem 50 years out of date and almost laughably rudimentary now, but there are plausible scenarios in which China could catch up to and even surpass the U.S. and Russia in space. Indeed, in one niche category — total space launches in a year — Beijing is already ahead of Washington, launching 19 rockets last year compared with America’s 18. (Russia still leads the world, with 31 launches last year, including several carrying American astronauts or cargo.)

Even taking into account the high-profile success of the Mars rover Curiosity, America’s space program is in obvious trouble. Having retired the crash-prone space shuttle fleet last summer, the U.S. currently lacks a manned spacecraft and must rent 1960s-vintage Soyuz capsules from Russia while it builds a next-generation capsule of its own. If development of a pricey new American capsule falters—and there are indications it might—Russia and China will be the only countries with manned spacecraft.

Read the rest at Pacific Standard.

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3 Responses to “Pacific Standard: A Great Leap Forward”

  1. Atomic Walrus says:

    Rather alarmist. US manned space missions are at a slow tempo, but it’s useful to note that there are no fewer than 4 new manned spacecraft under development in the US at the moment. While China is replicating late ’60s Soviet achievement, the US has orbital spaceplanes, and advanced satellite constellations with autonomous docking and station keeping technologies. As much as I love manned space exploration, it’s always been a sideshow to the real development path related to military and communications applications.

  2. TrollFeeder says:

    I agree with Walrus. Although I wouldn’t discount China’s ability to catch-up, we are not really falling behind. A lot of private sector advancements moving forward. You’ll also note NASA has focused on projects that require massive amounts of technical skill. We’re the masters of deep space exploration as well as satellite constellations of military and scientific nature. Eventually we’ll be back into manned space projects but the focus just isn’t there. A nice to have but not required to keep our technical edge.

  3. b2theory says:

    As the earlier posts have indicated, China is doing nothing even approaching the kinds of missions that the US is doing in space at the momment. For perspective, the US has 2 orbiters around Mars, 2 rovers on mars, 1 orbiter around Mercury, 1 orbiter around Saturn, a probe on the way to Pluto and anoher that has left Vesta on its way to Ceres. We also have several orbiting telescopes including the Hubble and eventually the Webb.

    We want China to become a peer. We shouldn’t have to be doing all of the research ourselves. Currently, when it comes to science in space, the US doesn’t have anything approaching a peer. Every picture that we have of the planets beyond mars was taken by the US(Well…Europe did take a great picture of Titan!) It’s US probes that are now leaving the solar system

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