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China's quickening pace in space

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29 June 2012 12:01

Dr Morris Jones, who has written previously for The Interpreter, is an Australian space analyst.

There is a condescending tone to much of the international reportage on China's recent space docking and expedition to its first space laboratory, Tiangong 1. Commentators applaud China's progress in space exploration but claim they are decades behind the US and Russia, who achieved similar feats in the 1970s.

These reports fail to account for the 'leapfrog' effect of technological advances, and the benefit of experience from other nations. Such effects are propelling much of Africa from being disconnected from telecommunications to enjoying broadband wireless services in just a few years. The effects are just as significant for China's space missions.

China has now perfected the complex art of space docking, a fundamental skill that opens all sorts of options. The Tiangong 1 module, described by the Chinese as a 'space laboratory', is actually a small space station and China expects to launch a large, modular space station within a decade.

China also operates its own independent fleet of rockets and astronaut-carrying spacecraft. Contrast this with the US, which does not presently have a system for launching its own astronauts, and has no idea of when this capability will be restored. Plans for the future of NASA are in disarray and the subject of spaceflight has barely appeared in recent political campaigns.

The US will probably only restore vitality to its space program when it realises that China has achieved near-parity with its own activities. That time is probably not too far in the future.

Photo by Flickr user tenshots.

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