Last week, a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying a crew made up of one American and one Russian was aborted mid-flight, forcing the capsule into what’s been called a “ballistic descent;” which is a decidedly sterile term for what amounts to careening back to earth at breakneck speeds and landing somewhere in Siberia before waiting for search and rescue teams to find you. This latest embarrassment for Roscosmos, Russia’s equivalent to NASA, further deepens the rift between American and Russian space programs; exacerbating side-eyed concerns about possible sabotage aboard the International Space Station after a hole was discovered drilled through the side of another Soyuz capsule attached to the orbital station in recent weeks.
From within the United States, criticism regarding Russia’s rocket failure last week is present, but slightly muted — likely because despite this recent setback, Russia remains NASA’s only means of putting human beings into orbit. Judging the safety standards of Russia’s manned space program is a delicate task for American officials, who can’t help but be aware that Americans can currently only reach the International Space Station on the backs of those same Russian rockets.
America may have won the space race in 1969, but in the intervening decades, the United States has allowed its manned space program to regress to pre-Gemini levels of capability. American rockets can ferry satellites into space, just as they were able to months after Sputnik launched in 1957, but currently, America lacks the technological capability to even match John Glenn’s 1961 launch into orbit — let alone the equipment needed to reach the moon or to achieve the even loftier goal of settling on Mars. America’s Space Launch System, which promises to be the most powerful rocket ever constructed once completed, has seen so many setbacks and delays that most people now see NASA’s projected timetables as little more than flights of fancy. SpaceX and Boeing, private companies that are now the front runners of manned American space flight, both recently announced that their first crewed launches will be pushed back by months… meaning the days of American reliance on Soviet era Russian rockets aren’t over yet.
Meanwhile, another serious player in orbital operations is beginning to rear its head. China — a nation that draws no boundaries between its civilian and military space enterprises, has quickly caught up with both Russia and the United States in a number of key areas when it comes to space operations — setting new records for the number of rockets launched and number of satellites fielded for the state with each subsequent launch this year.
By the close of 2018, China will have put 35 rockets into orbit, many of which were dedicated to fielding a new Chinese GPS system that would eliminate the nation’s reliance on American-based GPS, and potentially allow China to continue to maintain navigation operations in a conflict that would include attacks against America’s GPS constellations. Another of those 35 launches will be the Chang’e 4, a rover destined for the dark side of the moon meant to demonstrate how China’s space program is maturing rapidly — bridging the gap between a satellite launch some 1,200 miles from the earth’s surface and a moon mission that must fly some 238,900 miles just to reach lunar orbit.
China didn’t put astronauts into space until 2003, but in the intervening years, they’ve managed to field two space stations on their own, with plans underway to launch another slated to become operational shortly after funding for the U.S and Russian led International Space Station dries up. Plans are underway for a lunar station, to be largely helmed by NASA, and Russia has already assumed a significantly reduced role in the program — though they haven’t been shy about reminding the Americans that they’ll likely still need Russian capsules for transportation as the new “Orbital Platform Gateway” becomes operational.
With President Trump directing the establishment of a space force, which for the time being would be a mostly-grounded branch of the military focusing on managing and defending American orbital assets, space has become a growing topic of discussion within American politics; though rarely as it pertains to science and exploration. Rocket launches and spy satellites may make for frequent headline fodder, but America’s civilian space agency remains on a tight budget and perpetually behind schedule. With Russia increasingly falling by the wayside, it seems clear that the race to determine a leader in orbital operations for the latter half of the twenty-first century will be between private corporations and China, with the American government standing just outside the space on-ramp with its thumb in the air.
If you zoom far enough out on the contemporary history timeline, it’s beginning to look less like America won the space race in 1969, and more like it took an early lead. Now, with the race in full swing once again, that lead appears to be rapidly diminishing.