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We’re No. 3! U.S. Falls Behind in New Space Race

China recently revealed its plans for Lunar (and Venusian) exploration. Last week Europe announced its moon lander. Are these two spacefarers leaving a stuttering NASA in their wake?

Lunar landers

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China’s recently revealed its bold plans for lunar (and Venusian) exploration, and just last week Europe announced its huge lunar lander. Are these spacefarers leaving a stuttering U.S. in their wake?

China’s Chang’e-2 lunar lander is now in its final pre-launch testing phase–where every last kink is worked out before the vehicle is committed to space. It’s following in the footsteps of 2007’s Chang’e-1, which observed the moon from orbit, but this time the probe will land on the lunar soil. True to China’s usual secrecy about matters like this (presumably so they can hush up the launch if it goes less than optimally), we don’t know the exact date for its launch. But the first trial flight of the Chang’e-1 should happen before the end of 2010.

The unmanned lunar missions are merely preparation for the big-ticket event: A manned lunar landing by 2025. Given that this is a mere 15 years away and China’s manned space missions only began last year, the enterprise is comparable to America’s Mercury and Apollo missions in the 1960s–just a shade slower and many decades later. But what the Chinese get in return for waiting is far more advanced computer equipment, more detailed information about the lunar surface before they land, and better gear to gather samples and perform experiments on the surface.

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Meanwhile, using its budding space expertise, China plans to send an unmanned probe to land on Mars by 2013 and one to land on Venus–a far trickier mission—by 2015.

Europe’s lunar plans bear more resemblance to NASA’s Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997. They involve sending a 700- to 800-kilo lunar probe to the moon’s south pole, including a rover robot. The robot is to take soil samples and perform experiments on any water it may find. Early work had just begun on the project, with a recent €6.5 million grant to EADS Astrium for design research. The idea is to prepare for future manned trips. Getting there in the first place should be easy for the European agency, considering the expertise it will gain with its ATV cargo delivery vehicle, scheduled to do some of the heavy-lifting tasks up to the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, NASA’s plans for lunar exploration are in disarray. The Constellation program, which had been scheduled to land astronauts on the moon before 2020, was canceled by an Obama administration looking for easy budget cuts. Unless it collaborates with other nations, there won’t be American footprints on the moon any time soon. China is likely to be the first nation to walk on the moon in the 21st century, and if the U.S. continues to drag its feet, the E.U. will likely beat America to second place. And though NASA’s space effort is now directed at Martian missions, the loss of the moon will still sting a bit.

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To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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