Today, India launched its first Moon probe. A Chinese one is now there, mapping “every inch” of the surface for minerals. Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft visited the Moon late last year, a stepping stone for future missions. The three Asian giants are competing fiercely in the heavens.
For now, China, which completed its third manned mission last month with a spectacular spacewalk, is way ahead of the other two. Beijing plans to put a taikonaut-the Chinese term for astronaut-on the Moon by 2017. Nasa projects a Moon landing by 2019. In recent times, China has been meeting its timelines and we have not. So in a very important sense, the Chinese are ahead of us in the space race. But “space race” is a misnomer. Only Beijing thinks there is a race in space. We are not even in the game.
President Bush announced a Moon-Mars mission in January 2004 but has not provided the funding. This is allowing others to take the “high ground” away from the United States. As CNN’s Bill Tucker said yesterday, we have a ” ‘been there done that’ attitude.” Yes, we have been to the Moon, but we have to realize how far we have fallen. In two years we will not even be able to put a human into space. We are retiring our shuttle fleet in 2010 and will have no replacement until 2014-assuming that the Orion program is completed on time, which appears extremely improbable at this moment.
So in a short period we will have to rely on the Russians to get to the International Space Station. Out of all the failures of the Bush administration, this has to be among the most embarrassing. In just about the time it takes to say “Neil Armstrong,” we will become a second-ranked space power, dependent on others to reach orbit.
The United States, I am afraid to say, is losing its way in space.