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Old Space Race With USSR Began 59 Years Ago, New One With China’s Just Getting Started

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Humanity’s first satellite was launched by the Soviet Union 59 years ago Tuesday, kicking off a space race with the U.S.

These days, China sees itself as part of a new space race with the U.S., but in reality only one side is competing, according to experts.

China is massively expanding its presence in space, while the U.S. has pulled back and abandoned its lead.

“By abandoning plans to return to the Moon, the administration invited the rise of China as a leader in space,” Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the House science committee, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “By reallocating funding from exploration to earth science, the administration has put our leadership in space exploration at risk.”

In China, foraying into space is a way for the communist party to increase its prestige globally and solidify its hold as the sole party. Comparatively, in the U.S., space is an afterthought and merely provides an opportunity to meet environmental and diversity mandates.

During President Barack Obama’s administration, NASA cancelled plans to return to the moon, supervised the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle and set the Mars program back years. NASA hasn’t launched an astronaut into space since 2011 without the help of the Russians and has been forced by the Obama administration to delay its Mars missions until 2030. This policy vacuum in space is being filled by the Chinese.

“If we do not lead, we will weaken our partnerships,” Rep. Brian Babin, another Texas Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Space, told TheDCNF. “I want countries to embark with us into the cosmos, rather than team with China as a last resort.  The Obama Administration has already told the Europeans that that they are not interested in their Moon Village proposal.  They’ve tried to walk away from their commitments to the Germans on SOFIA and actually abandoned ExoMars.  International partners have memories: They also have options.”

China has even taken advantage of NASA’s absence to increase its cooperation in space with Europe. The country has already staged a spacewalk and launched a demo space station all since its first manned space launch in 2003.

In recent months, China has significantly accelerated its efforts in space, launching its second space station and building the world’s largest radio telescope in September as well as deploying the world’s first hack-proof satellite in August. Meanwhile, attempts to return U.S. astronauts to orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) are now in the hands of private companies.

China aims to land a solar-powered rover on Mars in 2020, and to become the first country to send an object to the dark side of the moon that same year. The country’s annual space budget is less than the U.S.’s, but most of NASA’s cash is spent on environmental issues and other fields not related to space exploration.

Beijing has poured billions into such ambitious scientific projects and also has a military-backed space program. Expert witnesses at the congressional hearing repeatedly noted that the divide between China’s military and civilian space programs isn’t a strict one and that most space activities were ultimately controlled by the Chinese military.

China has been heavily militarizing space as well. The communist country successfully targeted and destroyed one of its own satellites in orbit in 2007, and has likely tested a ground-based missile launch system to destroy objects in orbit in 2013.

Meanwhile, Obama has twice stymied programs initiated during former President George W. Bush’s administration designed to take humans to Mars by leaking information to the press about them and threatening to veto the projects.

Obama has repeatedly tried to slash space exploration funding and redirect it to Earth science programs — which just so happen to include climate modeling programs to measure global warming. Obama increased NASA’s budget for these environmental programs, especially those that study global warming, by 63 percent. These funding cuts to the exploration budget have allowed China to close the gap with NASA in space.

China’s plans to send a rover and a human to Mars are still technologically inferior to NASA, however. China’s Mars rover will weigh an estimated 440 pounds, making it much smaller than NASA’s new Mars 2020 rover’s 2,315 pounds. NASA’s previous nuclear isotope powered Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in August of 2012, weighed 2,000 pounds.

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