The land of the rising rocket

During most of the “space race,” the United States lagged behind. The Soviet Union beat us to every single landmark: first satellite. First man in orbit. First to orbit the moon. They won every single event, up to the very final, most important one: the first man on the moon. And once we pulled that off, they announced (sounding much like a petulant child) that they never intended to land on the moon, that it was overrated and unnecessary.

But a funny thing happened after we had our moon landings. The space program kind of trickled off. It seemed that once we had made the big splash in the Sea of Tranquility, the American people kind of said “OK, that was fun, let’s find something else to do.”

I am a huge believer in space exploration. I think that the survival of the human race demands that we get off this mudball and find new worlds, new stars to call home. The ability of this planet (and, for that matter, this sun) to support human life is finite, but our potential is not. We are one asteroid away from oblivion, with all our eggs in this one blue-green basket.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the Soviet rocket scientist and cosmotologist, famously said that “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.”

Sometimes I wonder if the reason that our fascination with space exploration — as a reality, not a fantasy — ended because we no longer had a rival. Competition tends to bring out our best efforts, and when the Soviets stopped racing with us, we stopped running ourselves. The space shuttle and the International Space Station are little more than stop-gaps, not truly serious platforms for exploration. They tend to focus down, on Earth and Earth orbit, not outward to the infinite.

Well, we might have our challengers again. In the last few weeks, two countries have made tremendous accomplishments in space travel — and both are Asian.

India managed to successfully launch a satellite into Earth orbit, then de-orbit it and bring it back to earth (well, technically, sea) safely. It was small and relatively primitive, but it worked.

And while India was playing with plowshares, China pulled out its sword. It successfully attacked and destroyed a satellite in earth orbit. This not only served to cause huge immediate headaches for those in the satellite business (it increased the amount of “space junk” by a significant percentage, threatening all other satellites with damage or destruction from collisions with the debris), but put the world on notice that China has proven it has the capability to destroy satellites at will — weather satellites, communication satellites, GPS satellites, spy satellites, and, if they chose, spacecraft and space stations.

For years, the “militarization” of space has been a huge issue. Treaties have been signed limiting or banning weapons in space, or that can reach space. While the wisdom of such pacts can be debated, the plain and simple fact is out: China can reach out and swat pretty much any satellite that it finds offensive, and that reality is not going to change.

Will this serve as a wake-up call for the United States, once the undisputed king of space exploration? Or will we cede the cosmic “high ground” to those who wish to claim it?

I sincerely hope not.

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