China, which has invested millions of dollars in recent years into a burgeoning space programme, now has a flagship piece of hardware already off the launchpad. Nasa currently has no manned launch capability of its own for crewed vehicles following the retirement of the space shuttle fleet this summer.
It is a situation that rankles with prominent figures in the US space community, among them Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, who last week lambasted the American programme as an embarrassment that could soon be eclipsed by the achievements of other nations.
"For a country that did so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable," he told a congressional hearing on the future of space flight. "Nasa leaders enthusiastically assured the American people that the agency was embarking on a new age of discovery. But the termination of the shuttle, the cancellation of existing rocket and spacecraft programmes, the lay-off of thousands of aerospace workers [and] the outlook for American space activity through the next decade is difficult to reconcile with agency assertions."
I love Neil Armstrong, and grew up idolizing astronauts. But: Who cares?
Don't get me wrong: If NASA approached and offered me a ride to the Space Station, I'd take it. My heart wants a space ship! But my head is a little colder about the issue. The Space Race—where human spaceflight is concerned—is mostly about national prestige, and almost not-at-all about solving the problems that face us on earth. It's a romantic endeavor, but in a time of belt-tightening, romance really shouldn't be the province of the government.
I know, I know: Humankind should be preparing to take a trip to the stars, getting ready for the day when our planet can no longer host us. If you believe that's really in the realm of possibility—and I'm skeptical—then we're still OK. Private industry is ready to start leading the way. The Chinese are ready to start leading the way. Humankind won't suffer because the United States government is on the sidelines for a few years.