When I was growing up, the space race between NASA and the Soviet space program was a major topic of conversation.
The race to the moon between the United States and Russia was a major avenue of Cold War competition and NASA lagged behind during the early days. The Russian space program piled up history-making achievement after achievement during the late 50’s and 60’s, while the United States struggled just to get a rocket off the launch pad.
From its Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia launched the world’s first ICBM, the world’s first orbiting satellite in Sputnik 1, the first satellite to reach the moon in Luna 1, the first manned orbital flight in 1961 with Yuri Gagarin, and the 1963 flight of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
Under the Interkosmos program 14 cosmonauts from 13 nations such as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Cuba and France were paired up with a Russian cosmonaut and blasted into space.
Eventually the United States got its space act together during the 60’s, spurred on by President John F. Kennedy bold declaration of putting a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Thanks to NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs the goal was accomplished when Apollo 11 landed on the moon July 20, 1969.
In the United States we’re about to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Our onetime Russian Cold War rivals are one of our major international partners helping to assemble and staff the International Space Station.
Just as our space program has slipped from the heady days of the Apollo era, the Russian one has fallen a bit as well due to tight budgets. The breakup of the Soviet Union also put the Russians in the position of having to lease the historic Baikonur Cosmodrome until 2050, since it now sits in Kazakhstan.
As the Russians upgrade the Plesetsk Cosmodrome and NASA prepares to retire its aging space shuttle fleet in 2010, China has made moves to challenge both nations in a bid to become the leading space-farer on Earth.
China launched its first satellite in 1970, but didn’t conduct a manned space mission until the Shenzhou 5 mission was launched October 15, 2003. Taikonaut Yang Liwei made 15 orbits of the Earth before touching down in Inner Mongolia.
This was quickly followed up with the Shenzhou 6 two-man mission almost two years later. It was launched October 12, 2005 with taikonauts Nie Haisheng and Fei Junlong, making 76 earth orbits over nearly five days before touching down.
But the most spectacular of the three manned Chinese space missions so far was Shenzhou 7. It launched on September 25, 2008 with three taikonauts on board. On September 27 Zhai Zhigang emerged from the capsule to conduct a 20 minute spacewalk before returning to Earth the next day. That mission packed with multiple firsts for the Chinese space program also earned China the 2009 Space Achievement Award from the US Space Foundation.
The Chinese have loftier ambitions than just launching manned earth orbit space missions. In addition to launching probes to the Moon and Mars, they want to build their own manned space station by 2015. The first Tiangong 1 module for the station will go up next year.
China is working to eventually put a crew of taikonauts together that includes a woman on the moon by 2020.
In addition to building another launch complex in southern China, it has set long term goals of conducting deep space manned exploration missions to Mars and Saturn by the middle of the 21st century.
China has made major technological strides since starting its rocketry program in 1949. It’s going to be fascinating to watch the new red star in space as it reaches for the stars. All human beings who like to gaze upward ought to keep up with China’s progress in the days to come.