America has backed increasingly away from human space exploration since the George W. Bush administration cancelled the space shuttle program and President Obama put the kibosh on Bush's proposed moonshot.
As for Russia, its program, fraught with failed flights, looks to have hit the skids. In the 13 months leading up to January 2012, Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, failed at a space station resupply mission, fell short of placing two communications satellites into proper orbits and splashed three navigation spacecraft into the Pacific Ocean after launch. Then there's the botched Phobos-Grunt, Russia's ambitious mission to return rocks from Mars' largest moon. After becoming stuck in Earth orbit after launch, it burned up upon re-entry and plummeted into the Pacific on Jan. 15, 2012.
Meanwhile, China carries on building its satellite web, expanding its crewed space program, upgrading its launch facilities, improving its lift vehicles and laying the foundations for a moon shot.
Two lunar probes, Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 (named for a Chinese moon goddess), have already successfully mapped the lunar landscape, tested landing equipment and supplied high-resolution images of landing sites [sources: CNN; CJSS]. The 2013 Chang'e-3 probe will gather moon rock samples and return them to Earth. With the experience and technical know-how gained from these missions, China will be well on its way to sending taikonauts to the moon. (The word "taikonaut" comes from taikong, the Chinese word for space, and the Greek suffix -naut, for sailor.)
China's roadmap for the next five years (2012 through 2016) focuses on the following goals:
- Refining recent rockets and developing new ones
- Improving existing launch sites and constructing new ones
- Establishing an orbiting framework of communications, scientific and GPS satellites
- Preparing the way for expanded human spaceflight
- Conducting limited deep-space surveys
- Using spacecraft to carry out experiments, take astronomical observations and warn against space debris
So what do those goals mean for China and the final frontier? Find out next.