China just launched its Long March-5 heavy rocket into orbit in the country’s latest step on a path to establishing a manned space station and building a lunar base on the surface of the moon.
Despite Beijing’s push into orbit, China is still playing catch up with the United States, but America could wind up losing the space race if it can’t recommit to STEM education and funding NASA.
While American astronauts are forced to ride Russian rockets into space, Beijing has committed significant national resources towards its space program. Last month, China launched two astronauts into orbit to spend a month aboard the country’s own space station, according to the Xinhua news agency.
“Its successful launch has propelled China to the forefront of the world in terms of rocket carrying capacity, and marks a milestone in China’s transition from a major player in space to a major power in space.”
The U.S. is still the most powerful nation in space, but to maintain the advantage the country needs to do a better job investing in education, research, and space travel, according to a National Press Club report.
NASA’s budget, always an issue for the space agency, is historically low and it doesn’t look like national priorities will change very much after the election of a new president, no matter who wins. Neither candidate has spent much time talking about their plans for NASA and the space agency wasn’t mentioned even for a moment in the presidential debates.
The agency is abandoning its role in the International Space Station and diverting the federal funds it does have towards a manned Mars mission opening the way for private companies to develop a new economy in orbit. That means that while commercial entities will see expanded opportunities, the nation will lose its leadership role in orbit.
— Mr. Bonet (@PhySciJMAST) November 1, 2016
Already, there are foreign countries, like China and Poland, partnering with each other and excluding the U.S. from their space exploration issues. Under President Obama, NASA abandoned its quest to return to the moon leaving countries like China the chance to gain a foothold on the lunar surface.
In 2013, China deployed its Jade Rabbit lunar rover to the moon; the machine soon suffered technical difficulties, but the “soft landing” on the moon was the first for any nation since 1976.
The Pentagon has increasingly eyed the Chinese space program with distrust seeing the country’s orbital activity as a way to counter American space-based assets.
In education also, America is falling behind.
The U.S. led the world in high school and college graduation rates 25 years ago, but recently the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked America 27th in math and 20th in science education among 34 countries. Among today’s high school students, 67 percent graduate without being ready to take college-level science courses, according to the National Math + Science Initiative.
“The United States is losing its competitive edge in math and science while the rest of the world soars ahead. Our knowledge capital, which fuels innovation and economic growth, is at risk.”
The U.S. is also deeply in need of its own rocket capable or boosting astronauts into orbit; currently the country is forced to rely on the Russian Soyuz rocket for rides to the ISS. NASA is still working on its massive Space Launch System and the recent SpaceX rocket explosion means that company’s crew capsule will probably face licensing delays.
A planned NASA test in 2018 for its SLS will be vitally important in the country’s plan to reach Mars sometime in the 2030’s.
America is still a leader in space, but without a renewed commitment to education, and technology research the nation faces the very real possibility of losing the space race.
What do you think about China’s space program?
[Featured Image by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images]