by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jul 26, 2011
The upcoming launch of China's Tiangong 1 space laboratory will come at a critical time. The US space program has just retired its fleet of Space Shuttles, and currently lacks any means of launching astronauts from US soil. America's space pundits are entering a period of reflection and concerns about the future.
Against this backdrop, China is preparing another major step in its own human spaceflight program, and will launch another manned space mission next year aboard its Shenzhou spacecraft. Is there any connection between these events?
In the short-term sense, not really. Some people will probably suspect that the launch time for Tiangong has been delayed to coincide with the end of NASA's Shuttle program. This is most unlikely. The launch of Tiangong has been delayed by at least one year, and missed earlier announced times for its launch.
In addition to this, the final mission in the US Space Shuttle program was also delayed. At times, it wasn't even clear which Shuttle orbiter or flight would actually round up the program!
The pacing of Tiangong and the Shuttle have both been planned independently, and have also suffered from the inevitable delays that appear in complex space programs. The launch of Tiangong at this time is an interesting coincidence, but not a conspiracy.
But the end of the Shuttle certainly puts the spotlight on Tiangong. It will raise awareness of China's steady progress in spaceflight, and remind Americans that they cannot be too complacent about their position in space. Some pundits are openly stating that they see this as a good thing.
A perceived challenge to American supremacy in space could spur the nation to invest more heavily in spaceflight. "Sputnik Shock" in the late 1950s prompted America to invest heavily in space technology, and ultimately placed American footprints on the Moon.
Could we substitute the Chinese for the Soviets this time? It's unlikely. International relations are far more complex now, and the US economy is sadly not as strong as it used to be. There will be grumblings and whimpers, but probably no major changes to US space policy or support.
In any case, the US space program has hardly collapsed. The USA is still the "anchor tenant" in the International Space Station, and will still send crews and cargo there.
A range of new American spacecraft is under development. Launch vehicles and satellites still fly with regularity. China still has a long way to go before it can catch up to all of this.
But Tiangong is still big news, both for China and spaceflight in general. China will soon master space dockings and long-duration flights. Although Tiangong is officially dubbed a Space Laboratory, it is essentially a small space station.
Parochial reporting policies, coupled with China's notorious policy of secrecy for its space program, have kept much of China's space activities out of the mainstream news. The launch of Tiangong will be a spotlight moment for this spacecraft, but also for China's space program in general.
We can expect a lot of retrospective reporting on the historic flight of China's first astronaut in 2003, and overviews of all that has happened in the meantime. This may come as a surprise to many viewers, but it should not come as a shock.
Doubtless, there will be irrational histrionics in some of the media coverage, but it's useful for America to know what's happening out there. The public seem to be growing complacent about space travel. Anything that wakes up their latent interest has to be good.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries on this topic.
The Chinese Space Program - News, Policy and Technology
China News from SinoDaily.com
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