The U.S.-Russian space race that led to the Apollo lunar landings is the stuff of legend. But now a new race is emerging, as China gears up with the world’s biggest rocket-production factory. And we’re not talking about fireworks.
Early rockets were based on old Russian designs, but China’s space industry has developed extraordinarily quickly since then. Chinese science and engineering teams launched an astronaut on the Shenzhou V mission in late 2003, then completed a spacewalk in 2008 on the Shenzhou 7 launch (see the video below). Though much of the nation’s space efforts are shrouded in mystery, the deputy head of the Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology just revealed that the world’s biggest facility for designing, building, and testing rockets is under construction in the Tianjin area of northern China.
It’s a vast facility, over 200 hectares, and the first phase is scheduled for completion by the end of this year; 20 of the 22 buildings are already complete. When the entire facility is finished it’ll be the main production site for China’s state-run space industry, capable of building a whole spectrum of rockets that’ll supply China’s satellite launching needs, manned space missions, space station and lunar missions.
Meanwhile, and perhaps not coincidentally, a little more has emerged about these moonshot plans: The so-called “Fantastic Four” missions will see a first landing of a probe on the lunar surface during the Chang’e 3 flight in 2013. A rover will be carried, and it’s assumed the radar it’s reported to carry will be used to examine beneath the lunar surface, possibly prospecting for water. Chang’e 4 will probably have a similar profile in 2014 or 2015, and in 2017 the Chang’e 5 mission will actually return samples to Earth.
Japan is simultaneously beefing up its space exploration capabilities, and Indian scientists have discovered an amazing huge hole in the lunar regolith at about the same time that its national space industry got a 35% budget increase to boost its efforts.
NASA is set to lose the Space Shuttle soon, and it’ll be years before the successor rocket is ready, let alone ripe, to propel astronauts to the Moon. While the burgeoning commercial space business is a big factor in U.S. space futures, it’s still in its very early phases of success and growth. Russia’s space effort is floundering too. China’s aggressive move into space exploration suggests a shift in global space politics and the emergence of a whole new space race between Western private space companies and Eastern state-run ones.
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