On Sept. 29, 2011, the first module of a new space station blasted into orbit, initiating a new dawn of space exploration. However, this is different in one key aspect: We didn't launch the space station. China did.
Named Tiangong 1 ("Heavenly Palace 1"), China's 8.5-ton unmanned test module is the first orbital building block of what will eventually become the country's answer to the International Space Station -- a new space station, definitively not international, belonging solely to China.
In as little as a few weeks, it will be mated with a second unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou 8, in a practice run at orbital docking. Then, next year, the Chinese plan to conduct two additional space missions in which astronauts will briefly occupy and live aboard the rump station.
While China admits it will be several years before the new station is fully operational, the fact that the Middle Kingdom is expanding its reach into space poses existential questions to NASA, and to America: Are we still a superpower? Is there a future for America in space?
U-S-A! U-S-A! Space Is Big Enough for Two
You can hardly open a newspaper these days without running into one (or more likely, several) articles describing America's perilous debt situation. A common theme running through these pieces is how extremely fragile our economy appears in contrast to China's booming business environment; how every year, our trade deficit sends hundreds of billions of dollars flowing out of America, and into China ... where those dollars are apparently being used to finance a new space race.
And yet, despite China's undeniable ascendance, I still believe there is a future for the U.S. in space.
Sure, China is catching up to the U.S. in many respects -- building stealth fighter jets to match our own, developing homegrown unmanned aerial vehicle technology, and even floating its own aircraft carrier. But the world's a big place, and space is even bigger. There's still more than enough room for two (or more) space powers.
Two Ways to Get to Space
What's interesting is the stark difference between how the U.S. and China are approaching this new space race.
At one end of the spectrum, we have China -- statist, authoritarian, centralized -- conducting a methodical conquest of space that's planned, orchestrated, and financed by Beijing.
At the other end, there's the U.S. -- starved for capital, wallowing in debt, and, largely because of these factors, moving away from the government-centric model for space exploration and more toward a space "race" that's privately funded and conducted by private enterprise.
U-S-A ... or You-S-A?
Historically, America's space efforts have been run by NASA. To the extent that private business has been involved, it's come mainly in the form of hiring aerospace giants like Lockheed Martin (LMT), Boeing (BA), and Alliant TechSystems (ATK) to build NASA's rocketships.
In recent years, however, we've seen tech pioneers such as Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors (TSLA), and most recently SpaceX) and Amazon.com (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos deploy their personal fortunes to create privately funded commercial space companies. Musk and Bezos are joined in this effort by airline mogul Richard Branson of Britain, whose Virgin Galactic startup promises to put private citizens into space.
Meanwhile, midsize space companies like Orbital Sciences (ORB) are angling to break the monopoly formed when Lockheed and Boeing merged their space operations to create the United Launch Alliance. GeoEye (GEOY) and DigitalGlobe (DGI) build and operate surveillance satellites, then lease photography time to NASA and other U.S. government agencies who want to take a peek at what's happening down here on terra firma.
Evolution of a Cosmic Ecosystem
The plethora of innovative initiatives being offered by private companies, and the dozens of private firms angling to break into this new field of business, are strong signs that America still has the edge in space exploration. We're shifting our cosmic aspirations onto the shoulders of private enterprise primarily out of necessity. Let's face it folks: We're broke.
Necessity has always been the mother of invention. What China hopes to do in 2020 with Tiangong 1 is essentially what America did nearly 50 years before, when we put Skylab in orbit in 1973. Today, American companies are taking the next "giant leap" forward in space exploration. We're creating an entire ecosystem of cost-efficient, innovative, and profit-seeking businesses aimed at the exploration and commercial exploitation of space.
So let's give a polite round of applause to China, please, as it takes its first small step toward contributing to mankind's understanding of the cosmos. But kindly hold the panic about how America's "losing the space race." Despite all our problems, we're still No. 1 -- and widening the lead.
Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any companies named above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Orbital Sciences and Amazon.com.
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