“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” these were the first words spoken by Neil Armstrong, when he was the first man to set foot on the moon. This spectacular event appeared to mark the culmination of the space race between the U.S. and Russia.
The accomplishment achieved by the U.S. was in no doubt a milestone in space exploration history and the U.S. basked in the glory of this achievement. And, as it appeared that the U.S. had won the battle for space with Russia, China has now emerged as the new rival to beat.
Shortly after Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, China began also taking some small steps of its own in space exploration. In 1970, China successfully launched their first satellite, Dong Fang Hong. In 1984, China perfected their geo-stationary communications satellites. In 1999, China began a series of unmanned experimental spacecraft with the space flight of Shenzhou. Most importantly, in 2003, China became the third nation to launch a human into space.
Now China appears to be catching up with the U.S., which once was a dominant presence in space exploration and now appears to be stagnant. In 2011, the U.S. executed its last flight of Atlantis, marking the official end of the U.S. shuttle program. With the U.S. stepping back from space exploration, a huge door has opened up for China, a golden opportunity to claim the fame provided by new space achievements that the country seems ready to seize.
China is scheduled to launch a satellite this coming weekend. The upcoming Shenzhou 9 docking mission will launch a three-person crew into orbit from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. This will be the first Chinese space crew to make a piloted rendezvous and dock with the country’s Tiangong space laboratory, currently in orbit. In addition, this mission will include the first Chinese female astronaut.
The module is said to be about 8.5 metric tons which is miniscule compared to the 400 metric ton module from the ISS. Although its size might not threaten the U.S. space program, China’s far-reaching goals and ambitions are something to watch out for.
“They do things when they are ready to do them, not on the ‘fits and starts’ model of the U.S. program. I think…hope…believe the tortoise will not catch up with the hare, but perhaps we could learn a lesson from their strategy. Pick a long term program and stick with it,” space policy analyst Marcia Smith says.
Although this event is no milestone for technological advancements in space programs, having a female on board represents something major for the Chinese. Unlike the U.S., China has big plans for the future, including a space station by 2020 and initial manned moon shot studies. Although China has a long way to go in its 30-year program, with the progress made thus far, the U.S. might have more competition than they originally thought.