I find it galling that we've gone from being the number one spacefaring power in the world, to the number three spot behind China. (Thanks, Mr. President, sir! Way to continue befuddling our allies and enemies alike by doing self-destructive things! Good luck on that second term, sir!) Unlike many people, though, I'm not paranoid about the Chinese in space.
In fact, I'm actually rather proud of them. China becomes less and less communist every day, and they're the *only* country since 1961 that has looked at space and said "There's a place for our people up there." That's impressive. They've built an independent space program, they do their own thing on their own time in their own way, and they haven't hamstrung themselves by doing a bunch of unendingly expensive open-ended construction projects of only dubious scientific value (Cough cough. ISS, I'm looking at you). So I'm proud of them.
So: Bear in mind that when I say I'm annoyed, I'm not annoyed with the fair competition, I'm annoyed with our own country's complete refusal to use the competition as a way to spur ourselves on to new realms of excellence. 'Oh, somebody else is playing the game now? Well, screw that, I'm going home and watching TV.' That's pretty much where we are as a scientific people, folks. That's what annoys me.
What also annoys me is that, as proud as I am of the Chinese for actually stepping up and being men, they haven't exactly been breaking any records or anything. I mean, they developed the capability to put people in space in 2003. Since then they've launched exactly THREE manned missions. The '03 one, Shenzhou 6 in '05, and Shenzhou 7 in '08. That's right: China has't put a person in space in four years, and they're *STILL* in second place ahead of us now.
As a sign of the increasing American irrelevance in space, the Chinese launched their first space station in the end of September. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/sci/2011-09/27/c_131161747.htm It's called Tiangong-1, and it didn't receive much attention in the American Press, who are much more interested in things that really matter, like "Terra Nova" and whatever Katy Perry isn't wearing in her latest video. Mankind's quest to break free of earth and take his place in the universe? Screw that, I've got reruns of Maude to watch!
So we've got a space station we don't actually own, and we couldn't get to it if we wanted to.
Tiangong-1 is actually a little bit of a surprise. The Shenzhou spacecraft is modular, like the Russian Soyuz, and the initial plan was to build a space station by leaving one module in space per mission, and dock those together forming a kind of mini-station. Not the greatest plan from where I sit, but still an interestingly original one.
It seems to have been abandoned as unfeasible, given the very slow launch schedule they maintain (Which, slow as it is, is infinitely more vital than ours at the moment), and has been replaced with a more traditional Russian-styled station from the 1970s.
In Pre-Mir days, the Russians launched their stations all at once, in one large module. We did that too, with Skylab. I'm not particularly convinced of the usefulness of space stations. Most everything done on the ISS in the last decade had already been done a dozen times over on Skylab and the Salyut stations by 1975. Whether it's useless or not, however, what impresses me is the Chinese ambition. The recognition that there are some things a country *must* do if they want to move up from the children's table, and space is one of them. So, as they become more and more American, we become less and less so.
Is anyone else out there as ashamed as I am?
Tiangong space station: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiangong-1