Today, gizmodo.com posted a great analysis of Tiangong-1, China’s first space lab, successfully launched yesterday. The launch is only the first of several test stations. China’s goal is to have a 60-ton space station in orbit by 2020, and then landing men on the Moon and Mars. China’s goal still pales in comparison to the International Space Station (449 tons), the old Soviet MIR (130 tons), and even Skylab (77 tons), but as author Jesus Diaz points out, the U.S. should be worried about the launch–just not for the reasons most people think.
Currently, Russia and the U.S. hesitate to share space technology with China for several reasons: reluctance to decrease national pride in being leaders in space exploration, concerns about industrial espionage, and fears that China will militarize space. But the result is a space program completly separated from the rest of the international community. The Tiangong-1 can’t dock with the ISS even if it wanted to. This sets the stage for the start of another space race
But when you consider our current economy, how uncertain our plans for space exploration are, and how dismal our plans for manned space exploration are, I don’t think the U.S. can afford another space race. Although another space race would mean investment in science education, employing many people, and and increase in national pride, paying for another moonshot or mission to Mars is probably a political impossibility right now. But while we sit, others will reap the rewards of space exploration (which do in fact translate to commercial products–it’s not just a vanity project).
Diaz notes that we started cooperating with Russia back when it was the Soviet Union, and we were still enemies. Diaz suggests that cooperation with China might be a way to bring our nations together. I think cooperation is necessary for even bigger reasons.
What does the future of space exploration look like? A space elevator? A shipyard in space? A base on the Moon? Colonies on Mars and various other moons in our solar system? These are tremendous projects, requiring a HUGE investment in money, people, expertise, and time. Right now, China is missing expertise, but given enough of the other factors, China can fill in this gap. Two competing programs (the Chinese and the International program) divide our efforts. Even more important, two competing space programs could increase hostilities down on Earth.
If we are to get off this planet, it would require cooperation on a global scale. If the world were to act together, we would all benefit together. It’s time the U.S. got back into the manned space exploration game, and it should consider China a potential teammate, not a competitor.