As NASA drifts without any discernible goal or direction, Russia, China and India are launching space exploration programs aimed at gaining high ground advantages.
Russia is advancing towards several lunar landing missions by 2020, most likely in preparation for human Mars surface operations.
China plans to establish an operational space station by 2020, and shows clear evidence that a lunar base and deep space exploration will follow. India, an emerging spacefaring nation, has dispatched an unmanned probe to orbit Mars before the end of this year.
As American astronauts now depend upon purchasing rides to the International Space Station aboard their rockets at $71 million per ticket, Russia plans to achieve as many as five lunar missions - four of them landers - between 2015 and 2020. All of the landers will aim at the Moon’s South Pole, most likely to explore ways to collect and process surface resources as an experimental laboratory for future human habitation on both the Moon and the Red Planet.
China is thinking big as well: President Xi Jinping has made it very clear he intends to have China establish itself as a space superpower. China sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, the third country after Russia and the U.S. to achieve independent manned space travel.
Last June three Chinese astronauts spent 15 days in orbit and docked with an experimental laboratory, part of Beijing’s plan to establish an operational space station by 2020. But that’s obviously just a beginning.
Last December China launched and landed a robotic rover called “Yulu” (Jade Rabbit) in the northwest corner of the giant Imbrium Basin, the left eye of the “man in the moon.” Its tasks will include surveying the moon’s geological structure and surface materials while looking for useful natural resources.
Zhao Xiaojin, director aerospace for the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., described the rover as “a high altitude patrolman carrying the dreams of Asia.” The next stage in 2017 will likely land a lunar probe, release a moon rover, and return a probe to Earth.
Yulu follows successes of two previous missions in 2007 and 2010. The first spacecraft orbited the moon for 494 days before departing for deep space. It is now more than 60 million kilometers away from Earth — China’s first man-made asteroid. The second mission verified some critical technologies and checked out the landing area for Yulu.
It’s important to note that China’s lunar lander is far too big to have been designed for tiny rovers. Its size is 40 percent larger than a NASA Apollo module descent stage, suggesting that it must have been engineered for the addition of an ascent stage and crew cabin module to carry astronauts. The Chinese are building as many as six of such landers on an assembly line basis.
Deputy Engineer-In-Chief Sun Huixian who heads this phase of their program said, “China’s space exploration will not stop at the moon. Our target is deep space.” As further evidence they are serious, they have announced development of a Saturn-V-class Moon rocket with 11 million pounds of liftoff thrust. This is 3.5 million more than the Apollo Saturn V.
Then There’s India: Just one day before China’s Yulu launch, India sent an unmanned Mars orbiter named Mangalyaan (Marscraft) which will reach the red planet this year. If successful, India’s space agency will be the fourth in the world to reach Mars following the U.S., Russia and Europe.
India’s Mangalyaan launch is broadly recognized as the first salvo in a burgeoning space race with China, Japan, South Korea and other emerging world powers. Like China, this will also include lunar rovers.
Where does that leave America?
Any effective policy requires committed leadership, a destination goal, and a carefully conceived long-term roadmap with achievable, worthwhile milestones. Since none of these prerequisites presently exist, the U.S. Space program is adrift without any real vision, goal, or determination.
Three years ago, speaking at the Kennedy Space Center, President Obama announced that he wanted astronauts on Mars by the mid-2030s. Yet there is as of yet still no coherent strategy or budget plan to accomplish this.
Sixteen years ago Neil Armstrong told BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh: “The dream remains. The reality has faded a bit, but it will come back in time.” His prophesy is apparently coming true. The big question now is whether it will ever come back to America.
Larry Bell is a professor and endowed professor at the University of Houston, where he directs the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture and heads the graduate program in space architecture. He is author of “Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax,” and his professional aerospace work has been featured on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel-Canada. Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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