Is China winning the new space race?

The Tortoise and the Hare Race to Space
Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut in space, salutes before giving a speech during a 2007 meeting marking the 80th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army.
Yang Liwei, China's first astronaut in space, salutes before giving a speech during a 2007 meeting marking the 80th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army.
Guang Niu/Getty Images

Are we witnessing the dawn of Chinese dominance in space? It depends. China has set itself some properly lofty goals; meeting each one entails an array of intricate moving parts. Launching and maintaining a successful space lab, for example, necessitates innovations in docking and refueling, orbital construction and long-term life-support -- and that's just for starters.

The accomplishments of China's space program so far are roughly equivalent to the United States' and the former Soviet Union's space programs circa the mid-1960s. However, the nation has made steady headway, setting a succession of modest goals and meeting them, since it kicked off in 1992: launching its first taikonaut, Yang Liwei, into space in 2003, for example, and conducting its first spacewalk five years later. Moreover, like its military, which in 2011 overhauled a Soviet warship as the basis of its first aircraft carrier, China benefits from years of hard-won advancements by other countries, including microchips and space-age materials.

Meanwhile, don't count out the other space powers -- or the private sector. China's military and economic growth argues strongly for other nations to at least keep pace, or risk a military or technological gap. Perhaps the threat of a Chinese space station or moon mission will galvanize the U.S., inspiring the country's voters to goad their government into giving NASA the direction and support it needs to retain its fading prominence and reclaim the glory of old.

If not, we might be witnessing the middle of a tortoise-and-hare contest, in which a low-budget, steady program overtakes its flitting, fickle, but better-established, rival.

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