Asia has hosted the world’s second 'space race' for several decades. As with the first space race between the US and the Soviet Union, the ultimate goal is to send humans into space.

Japan once harboured dreams of its own space capsule, but cancelled those plans when it joined the International Space Station program. Japan contributed a laboratory module and an uncrewed cargo spacecraft to the Station, but elected to launch astronauts aboard the US shuttle.

China forged a path of autarky, developing its own crew-carrying spacecraft (with its first astronaut launch in 2003) and its own space laboratories.

The region’s other major space power is India. An Indian cosmonaut flew in space with a Soviet mission in 1984, but India delayed any plans for developing a human spacecraft by itself. In recent years, this has changed.

India seems to have been panicked by the tremendous strides achieved by the Chinese program. One reaction was a crash program to send a robot orbiter to Mars before China could achieve the same goal. The other has been the start of a human spaceflight program.

India hopes to launch a small capsule spacecraft at some point in the future. With all due respect to India and its generally excellent space program, the human spaceflight program seems like a shambles. India has yet to tame the rocket it will need to launch the capsule. There seems to be so much confusion over the management of the project. This is reaction, rather than carefully planned action. That sort of haphazard activity is a recipe for disaster in spaceflight.

Recently, India tested a small scale model of a reusable space shuttle on a sub-orbital flight. The test was successful, but it should not be interpreted as a sign of an imminent Indian astronaut shuttle. Japan also conducted similar tests in preparation for a Japanese robot shuttle, but the program was cancelled. The boffins are playing around, but getting beyond the experimental phase will require more time, money and effort. China is also planning to test a full-sized mockup of a new space capsule later this year, which is slated for missions to the moon. Again, it isn’t really clear when this vehicle will be fully developed or even carry astronauts into deep space.

In contrast with the US, now a a nation without the ability to launch astronauts on its own spacecraft, and Russia, whose space program is also stagnating, human spaceflight is in a turbulent and fascinating flux in Asia.  Expect some intriguing developments over the next few years.

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