Wednesday, August 1, 2012


When I think of space travel I think of the popular entertainment of the late Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise. The various reruns of the iconic shows are popular here in China and like millions of other fans I enjoy watching the old episodes online.
The original Star Trek series lasted only three seasons and it was canceled just prior to the historic moon landing in 1969. The shows reruns became extremely popular though in the 1970’s due in part to the U.S. lunar landings.

In the early 1960’s the space race between the old Soviet Union and the United States was a top priority between the two superpowers. Landing men on the moon and returning them safely to earth was not an unrealistic goal for America back then. The reason being we had the vision and the drive to make it a reality.

The first lunar landing on July 20 1969 by the historic Apollo 11 mission captured the imagination of the entire planet and showed the world the power and ingenuity that we Americans possess. The images from the moon were broadcast for the world to see. That extraordinary event not only put us ahead of the Russians in the space race it was also a huge achievement for humankind. The famous life magazine photo of the earth taken from the lunar surface revealed for the first time just how precious and beautiful our planet is.
It’s unfortunate though that manned space travel is no longer a priority in the U.S. we seem to have lost the vision we once had to boldly go where no one has gone before. Private contractors are now doing what NASA once did in terms of research and development. The goals of private contractors seem to want to commercialize space travel for the wealthiest rather than for scientific discoveries.

The United States will not test a new rocket to take people into space until 2017 and Russia has said manned missions are no longer a priority.

China the second largest economic superpower in the world announced its goal of building a space station on the moon by 2020. A space station on the lunar surface will be a huge technological achievement not just for China but for all humankind.

In 2007 China launched its first moon orbiter and it was a big deal for the Chinese government. However, last semester some of my students in my cultural diversity class in Suzhou, China laughed when I brought it up. They commented that China’s space agency is five decades behind the U.S.

I told them quite honestly that the United States seems to be losing its leadership role, especially, when it comes to manned space exploration. Most Americans would agree that the U.S. should have had something in place prior to scrapping its shuttle programs because it sends the message that manned space exploration is no longer necessary.

China plans to launch an unmanned space probe to the moon by the end of next year to survey the lunar surface and it will be followed by an unmanned lunar landing. They will take soil and rock samples back to earth by 2017. Their ultimate mission however is to send astronauts to the moon and land the first female astronaut on the lunar surface by 2020.
China's Shenzhou 9 spacecraft returned to Earth last month, ending a mission that put the country's first woman in space and completed a manned docking test critical to its goal of building a space station by 2020.

I told my students that China is far from catching up with the established space superpowers, the United States and Russia. But the Shenzhou 9 marked China's fourth manned space mission since their first in 2003. They are moving fast at a time when budget restraints and shifting priorities have held back the U.S. manned space missions.

China has a deep vision and huge ambitions to establish themselves as the world’s number one superpower. With their booming economy they are spending trillions of Yuan. They are using that money to build up their infrastructure, military, and now their space program. Economists are saying China’s economic growth is slowing down but that doesn’t seem to be slowing down their ambitious projects. The United States economy is limping along with a 1.5 percent annual growth rate. China’s annual economic growth rate is roughly 9.7 percent and our fiscal restraints in the U.S. have shifted priorities toward austerity.

On the other hand China wants the world to see that they are on the rise and one way to achieve their goal is through manned space missions. Fifty years ago such human endeavors were merely entertained in the minds of the science fiction writers but now science fiction is coming of age. If China keeps up its pace perhaps the world focus may soon shift from the U.S. astronauts to China’s cosmonauts.

Hopefully, Congress in the U.S. will recognize the benefit of increasing funding for a manned space program. If that were to happen China and the U.S. could share a common goal and work together toward building a space station on the surface of the moon. This is something that has not yet been achieved not because it’s beyond our reach but rather we lost the vision to make it a reality. We must once again draw on our American ingenuity to bring our vision of what can be achieved to fruition in doing so we might reveal once again what made America great in the eyes of the world.

Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill

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