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Is China Overtaking U.S. in Space?

Since 2011 the United States has launched exactly zero astronauts into space. Meanwhile China has sent up six, including three on Tuesday. In 2012, China successfully launched 19 rockets into space, the US only 12. NASA doesn't even have a plan for launching another person into space until 2019 to 2021. And that is only if the project miraculously avoids delays and budget overruns. (Don't hold your breath.)

chinese astronaut.jpg

Are we falling by the wayside in human space exploration?

The historical and current accomplishments of the United Sates' space program of course form an imposing list: The moon landings, the first (and only successful) reusable space shuttle, the vast majority of the money and manpower invested in the intenational space station. We have trained by far the largest number of astronauts, and we still send more humans into orbit than anyone else, though we now pay Russia to do the lifting. Just last summer we landed Curiosity on Mars while millions sat up late into the night watching live.

It is important to realize we haven't lost this lead, built over decades. But it is just as important to realize that our advantages and capabilities are dwindling; we are losing ground. Our infrastructure and human expertise grows older and dustier without use. If we as a nation value the technological achievement, the sense of national pride and the potential for future return on investment that the space program represents, we need to change our space policy.

In 2010, The Obama administration and congress cancelled the Constellation program, the NASA effort to develop new vehicles to replace the space shuttle for carrying human crews to space. This effectively left the US facing a decade or more with no method to transport astronauts to orbit. It was decried by the first and last men, respectively, to walk on the moon:

"the accompanying decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating" -- Neil Armstrong

"For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature" -- Eugene Cernan

This decision partly rested on budget overruns that plagued the project. However, the current NASA budget is relatively tiny. We spend $98 on Medicare and Medicaid for every $1 we spend on NASA. Frighteningly, for that same dollar spent on NASA, we spend $14 just to service interest on our national debt! We face far larger financial worries than allocation of an extra fraction of a percent of the budget to the space program.

NASA could also spend the money it does have more efficiently, and here we may learn something from our competitors. While the official Chinese space program's budget is unknown (and likely more than the roughly half billion US dollars officially claimed), it is almost certainly dramatically less than our space budget. This suggests that manned spaceflight can be had at a lower cost.

The United States is still the greatest power in space. However, we can't take that for granted for much longer. China is arcing up as we slowly fall from orbit.

Image: wikimedia commons

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Tom Hartsfield
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