Two Chinese astronauts ("taikonauts" in the local lingo) launched from a space base in the Gobi Desert today, almost two years after the first Chinese taikonaut, Yang Liwei, went into orbit. Two aspects of this launch demonstrate China's confidence in their burgeoning space program: the launch was carried live on Chinese state TV (a first for the program); and the Shenzhou VI spacecraft carried two people. Unlike the Soviet and American space programs, China went directly to a multi-person crew immediately following a single solo launch.
All of this would be seen as national grandstanding were it not for China's stated plans to send taikonauts to the Moon, with the longer-term goal of establishing a base there. This helps to explain why the US government is still pushing for a renewed Lunar program, despite the needs of the unmanned space program and the larger question of federal budgets. The last space race was a superpower one-upmanship game; will the new space race be any different? We can hope...
Just where are we racing too? What's the point of going to the Moon?
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big Heinlein fan and would love to live on Mars, but I'm not sure that either China's program or the new NASA program will help me do that. Burt Rutan, on the other hand, very well might.
Hopefully there won't be a new 'race', because a 'race' suggests a winner and a loser. Space is not like the Stanley Cup; it's a frontier, and big enough for all of us (and more). Hopefully there will be a Space Renaissance, and American and Chinese firms will only be competing in the capitalist sense of the word. That way, we all win.
I doubt Chinese companies will compete head to head with N. American, European and Russian companies. This program is purely a military excersize and yes I do see another military space race happening between the US, China and EU/Russia. Private companies like Scaled Composites will not be involved in this race, they will be involved in the Private Race. The way I see it we are entering a time of Two Space Races, the Military one and the Private one.
Actually, China has NOT stated plans to send people to the moon. The only stated plans are to send a robotic mission, probably in 2007. Many news outlets extrapolated, but I've seen no official Chinese statement on this. You can't believe all you hear these days...
On the other hand, they obviously have very ambitious unstated plans for their space program. The jump from their first flight to this one is comparable to the jump from the US Mercury to Gemini missions. That doesn't mean that in two years they'll be ready for their own "Apollo", but all indications are that they'll at least be doing something resembling Skylab, with modern equipment. They're learning very fast, and have excellent technical skills and engineering know-how behind all this; Americans had better not feel complacent that they're "40 years behind", because they're not.
Does anybody have any clear information abotu America's involvement int eh New Space Race? I believe that America coudl be doing much more than they are with the money they have to spend of space exploration. Please send me your comments about what you think and if you have any resources I coudl use it would be greatly appreciated. -firstname.lastname@example.org