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U.S. Finds It's Getting Crowded Out There

China, space, astronaut
One of the 14 Chinese astronauts, also known as taikonauts, who prepared for China's first manned space mission October, 2003. (CREDIT: Courtesy of SpaceDaily.com.)

· The United States is largely out of the business of launching satellites for other nations, something the Russians, Indians, Chinese and Arianespace do regularly. Their clients include Nigeria, Singapore, Brazil, Israel and others. The 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and China are also cooperating on commercial ventures, including a rival to the U.S. space-based Global Positioning System.

· South Korea, Taiwan and Brazil have plans to quickly develop their space programs and possibly become low-cost satellite launchers. South Korea and Brazil are both developing homegrown rocket and satellite-making capacities.

This explosion in international space capabilities is recent, largely taking place since the turn of the century. While the origins of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Israeli and European space efforts go back several decades, their capability to pull off highly technical feats -- sending humans into orbit, circling Mars and the moon with unmanned spacecraft, landing on an asteroid and visiting a comet -- are all new developments.

A Different Space Race

In contrast to the Cold War space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the global competition today is being driven by national pride, newly earned wealth, a growing cadre of highly educated men and women, and the confidence that achievements in space will bring substantial soft power as well as military benefits. The planet-wide eagerness to join the space-faring club is palpable.

China has sent men into space twice in the past five years and plans another manned mission in October. More than any other country besides the United States, experts say, China has decided that space exploration, and its commercial and military purposes, are as important as the seas once were to the British empire and air power was to the United States.

The Chinese space program began in the 1970s, but it was not until 2003 that astronaut Yang Liwei was blasted into space in a Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, making China one of only three nations to send men into space.

"The Chinese have a carefully thought-out human spaceflight program that will take them up to parity with the United States and Russia," Griffin said. "They're investing to make China a strategic world power second to none -- not so much to become a grand military power, but because deals and advantage flow to world leaders."

Meanwhile, other nations are pushing to increase their space budgets. Ministers from the European Space Agency nations will vote in November on a costly plan to begin a human space program. David Southwood, ESA's director for science, said human space travel has broad support across the continent, and European astronauts who have flown to the space station on U.S. and Russian spacecraft are "extremely popular people" in their home nations. "It seems highly unlikely that Europe as a whole will opt out of putting humans into space," he said.

NASA and the U.S. space effort, meanwhile, have been in something of a slump.

The space shuttle is still the most sophisticated space vehicle ever built, and orbiting observatories such as the Hubble space telescope and its in-development successor, the James Webb space telescope, remain unmatched. But the combination of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the upcoming five-year "gap" when NASA will have no American spacecraft that can reach the space station, and the widely held belief that NASA lacks the funding to accomplish its goals, have together made the U.S. effort appear less than robust.


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