After 40 years of space-exploration leadership, the United States recently discontinued its shuttle program — mere months before China launched its “Heavenly Palace” Tiangong-1 module, which gives that nation its first base for space crew.
“This is a significant test; we've never done such a thing before,” officially states China's Lu Jinrong, the chief engineer at the module's launch center. In contrast, the U.S. launched Skylab in 1973, its first habitable space station, but has no such station now.
The diverging programs have caused much handwringing by NASA personnel, U.S. space entrepreneurs, and others. Though not swinging punches like Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong recently expressed his displeasure at a September 22 congressional hearing: “This is … lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable. NASA leaders enthusiastically assured the American people that the agency was embarking on a new age of discovery, but [with] the cancellation of existing rocket and spacecraft programs, the layoff of thousands of aerospace workers … the outlook for American space activity … is difficult to reconcile with agency assertions.”
China has already scheduled a follow-up launch of an unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft to meet Tiangong-1 at its orbit sometime this month, and practice remote-controlled docking. Another manned mission is planned for next year, while a permanent three-piece space station and moon trips are tentatively scheduled for 2020.
On the other hand, NASA currently participates in the International Space Station project; enjoys access to seats aboard the regular albeit recently troubled Russian Soyuz; and possesses a solid network of capable U.S. contractors. In addition, NASA is planning a $60 billion rocket Space Launch System to carry astronauts further than ever into space — though the program won't begin in earnest until 2017.
Even so, alarmists are out there, particularly when it comes to the rather entertaining idea of moon ownership. At last month's International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, Robert Bigelow (of space-hotel fame) predicted that China will claim possession of Earth's original satellite. Others, including the U.S. Department of Defense, quietly confirm the proliferation of Chinese-manufactured satellites and space-related weapons. (Download defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/2011_cmpr_final.pdf for details.) In fact, China's space-program spokesperson reports that 35 billion yuan ($5.5 billion) has been spent on their program since 1992. Most international estimates place the number higher (to account for unlogged but direct military support) at $3 billion annually, give or take.
In contrast, NASA's 2012 budget, at only 0.6% of our federal budget, weighs in at $18.7 billion, while $8 billion more will be spent on military-related space projects. Clearly, the issue at hand is not available funding, though the federal deficit is disturbing. What we have is another issue altogether: Priorities. It behooves us to recognize that we are capable (financially and technologically) of matching China's recent achievement. However, our current efforts in space are coordinated with international cooperative work — and that's a disregarded but admirable development.