Farewell, Atlantis: China Takes Up the Torch of Manned Space Flight

Dean Cheng /

With the safe return of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, American ability to put astronauts into space come to an end—50 years after Alan Shepard piloted Freedom 7 into the heavens and became the first American to enter outer space.

Later this year, China will remind the world that it remains committed to what the United States no longer seems interested in—being able to put a man in space. The Chinese are expected to place the Tiangong–1, resembling the U.S. Skylab or the Soviet Salyut space labs, into orbit sometime later this summer or this fall. The Chinese will also launch an unmanned version of their Shenzhou space capsule to engage in unmanned docking maneuvers with the Tiangong, while preparing for manned missions in 2012 or 2013.

Meanwhile, China also continues its Chang’e lunar exploration program. With the successful launch of two orbiters, China has now had a chance to examine the moon for the best place to land a lunar rover, currently scheduled for 2013, and eventually a lunar sample retrieval mission, which is expected by 2017. Once that milestone is achieved, China will have completed the two main preparatory steps toward a manned lunar mission, most likely in the 2025 timeframe.

Some would argue that none of this matters. The U.S. put a man in space in 1961. China’s first manned mission, Shenzhou V, was launched in 2003. The U.S. put a man on the moon on July 20, 1969. China will merely be following in American footsteps.

Yet the psychological impact of China’s landing a man on the moon will be enormous for three audiences:

If the United States is not in a position to compete with the People’s Republic of China, it will be a rather different world the morning after China plants its flag in the lunar soil.