The recent touchdown in the People’s Republic of China of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft signals a turning point in the way we perceive space travel.
Could the first human being to walk on the moon in almost half a century be a communist?
After a thirteen-day flight by astronauts Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang and Liu Yang (the first Chinese female to fly into space) China finds itself at a crossroads in space exploration.
In sinister parallels with the Soviet space program of the 1960’s China has perfected docking manned spacecraft in orbit, a significant step toward a lunar exploration program.
After lifting off from the launch site in the Gobi desert on June 16th, Shenzhou 9 caught up with the unmanned Chinese space station Tiangong-1 and performed an automatic docking sequence before successfully undocking and re-docking under the manual control of Commander Jing Haipeng.
Such an achievement has only ever been performed by the United States and Soviet Union, and forms a vital part of the process of mounting missions beyond earth orbit to the moon and potentially even further afield.
Why worry? Well it is fairly certain that while NASA and the US government maintain a publicly vicarious stance, behind closed doors many within the US space hierarchy will be significantly troubled and disturbed by the rate at which China appears to be catching its American counterparts.
The spectre of Shenzhou 9 can merely add to the misgivings of the American public in a similar way to the flight of Sputnik fifty-five years ago, which generated panic and disbelief as the west was shaken by the sudden knowledge that the Russian ‘yokels’ were actually far more capable than they had been given credit for.
Of course the United States eventually triumphed in that race to the moon, but the challenge of today is incredibly different to the one faced by the prosperous ‘baby-boomer’ generation of the sixties.
Political infighting, a forthcoming election and a financial meltdown are all more pressing matters to the American public and political top-brass than flights to the moon. In fact, it may even be too late for the US to avert China stealing its lead in space exploration. NASA is reeling from cutbacks that have decimated its budget and workforce to a point where it receives less than 10% of the funding it did 45 years ago.
The recent retirement of the Space Shuttle leaves the US with no way of placing astronauts in space for the first time since 1979. Hiring seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has already been decried by many Americans as a humiliating deference to their Cold War rival, one which firmly places them behind Russia in terms of technological prowess.
With no replacement available until later this decade at the earliest, NASA finds itself unable to act to stop or even delay the Chinese efforts guided by the CNSA (Chinese National Space Administration). Unlike the political motivation of the original space race, some suspect China may be targeting the moon as a source of rich mineral wealth. Yes, China may one day run mines upon the lunar surface.
So the US finds itself caught in a vicious catch-22. To add insult to injury this December marks forty years since Americans last walked on the face of our celestial neighbour.
Many believed that with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in eastern Europe during the early 1990′s that communism was a spent force.
However it seems that ideology may yet have the last laugh.