China's Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace) set for launch

Even as NASA and the rest of the US government continue to debate about how it will sustain a manned presence in space, the Chinese government has now announced that the first module of the Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace) space lab will be launched next year. Expected to weigh about 8.5 tonnes, the module will provide a target for Chinese spacecraft to practice docking maneuvers — an essential part of both a long-term presence in space and for any mission to the Moon or beyond.

Yet, the announcement also constitutes a reprieve of sorts for US space policy planners. The module was originally supposed to be orbited in 2010, followed by docking maneuvers with Chinese missions Shenzhou-VIII (expected to be unmanned), and Shenzhou-IX and -X (both manned) in subsequent years. The Chinese announcement of a launch date shifted to next year included the statement that the module had encountered technical difficulties. Given the pace of Chinese manned launches, which have generally been every other year, this suggests that the Chinese may not engage in further manned missions until 2011, or even 2013.

The Chinese delay not only serves as a reminder that space missions, especially manned ones, are difficult, but also provides the US with the time to adjust its own decisions regarding such efforts. While the United States may not be racing China to return to the Moon, the diplomatic and political consequences of an American inability to conduct a manned lunar mission if and when the Chinese go to the Moon would nonetheless be severe.

Under these circumstances, the United States has the opportunity to set the course for its own manned space efforts without having to “race.” The NASA administrator needs to present a viable, long-term plan that can garner broad support — no mean feat in the face of current economic conditions. At the same time, Congress needs to make clear that the funding for such an effort will be stable. None of this will be easy, and it all will require leadership from the Oval Office but, as the Chinese saying goes, “shi bu wo dai” (time waits for no man).