Just last week, China successfully launched its second prototype space station, Tiangong 2, into space. With two operational space station prototypes, the Chinese space program is well into its plans to launch Chinese astronauts into space to perform research next month. By 2020, China plans to have a full, operational space station orbiting Earth, and by 2050, a manned Mars mission. These plans seem to indicate a bright future for scientific advances into space.
However, the second successful launch of the Chinese space station only serves to remind the United States of the dangers of falling behind in the space race. The current international space station (ISS), previously the United States space station, became a research collaboration between the United States and Russia after the US soundly won the space race. No country dared to challenge the US in space, because the NASA program was the best space program in the world. Space shuttles in the US could carry more personnel and were better equipped to repair the space station, and the Russian Soyuz was seen as the shuttle’s little brother. Yet now, both Russian and China’s space programs provide good competition in the space race, and some argue that they quite surpass the NASA program. The failure of the United States to keep up in the space race results in a blatant decrease in safety from other nations in space.
Our superiority in space seemed to end with the dismantling of the United States space shuttle program. Realizing the inefficiency of repeating the same missions to the ISS, the Bush Administration planned to phase out the space shuttle missions, replacing them with new space programs that might even send Americans to Mars. Promised a new and improved space shuttle with technology that could take us to Mars, scientists were optimistic that the US would pioneer new space travel despite the loss of immediate access to the space station. The space shuttle program was scheduled to end during the term of the next president, who happens to be President Obama.
The Obama administration surprisingly extended the space shuttle program. Over the next few years, Americans saw a few more missions, and then the expected dismantling of the entire program on August 31, 2011. Many scientists agreed to the end of the space shuttle program with the promise that a new, improved program would replace it. However, Obama claimed that America needed a “technology breakthrough” before advancing the space program. Instead of replacing the space shuttle program, Obama used NASA funding for scientific research and created a governmental program to assist former NASA employees.
Five years later, it seems that science may have advanced, but government has failed to keep up. Russia now is the only country with access to the International Space Station, making the ISS an international space station in name only. Russia can now charge the US any price to send up their astronauts. Prominent scientist and former senator John Glenn clearly predicted that Russia would have no competition in sending Americans to the ISS. Clear to his prediction, Russia clearly used US need to their advantage, manipulating the price to send an astronaut to an extravagant amount of $82 million. In addition, Glenn also mentioned that the US would fall behind other nations like China in high tech spacecraft. China’s last launch merely serves as additional proof that we should have listened to him.
According to the United States Department of Defense, China’s space station may pose a threat to US security. In the annual report from 2012, the DoD said that parallel to its seemingly peaceful scientific reasons to establish a space program, China is also “developing a multidimensional program to limit or deny the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.” That means that the Chinese space program could give them the upper hand in a war or a minor conflict with another nation, who might rely on satellites for communication or defense navigation systems. Furthermore, in 2015, the DoD reported that China was launching more satellites in the areas of communication and data relay and remote sensing and earth resources. This clearly indicates that China will be prepared for space in the next few years, outpacing the Americans by far. If Russia became neutral, refusing to allow usage of their satellites, and China took down our satellites, our defense systems within the military could become impaired beyond usage. And without a strong space program already in place, the US may not be able to replace our satellites in enough time.
In the next few years, the US will have to answer to scientists and citizens alike on why the space shuttle program was not replaced. Letting our space program deteriorate has lead to challenges from both Russia and China, and we are unable to keep up against them in the space race. Whether by fiscal difficulties from the Russians, or Chinese covert space operations, the US must rise to the occasion and renew our space program, making it superior to that of China and Russia. Only then will we see Russia backing down in their asking price for launching astronauts, and China return to solely scientific missions into space.
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