chinese long march rocket launch. march 31, 2012. xinhua photo

Shutdown: The Future of U.S. Space Power

The U.S. is becoming a ‘no-show’ in the Asia-Pacific space race, according to one professor at the Naval War College


In late September, the International Astronautical Federation held its annual convention in Beijing — the group’s largest meeting yet. The name also belies the meeting’s importance as the most important annual event in the world for exhibiting space technology.

And where were the Americans?

There were some, writes Andrew Erickson, a China expert at the U.S. Naval War College, but the numbers were down this year. “With U.S. government travel largely suspended, a disproportionately small number of Americans attended, and little was said of recent American space accomplishments — in part because there was little new to say,” Erickson wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 1.

For China, to the contrary, there was plenty new to say. Beijing has a number of space launches — 15 since October 2012 — and is preparing to launch a moon rover later this year.

“They presented and discussed China’s plans for a new generation of launch vehicles, human spaceflight programme, a second imminent phase of lunar exploration, global satellite navigation and high resolution Earth observation systems,” stated the IAF.

The U.S. space program, by contrast, appears subdued. There are mysterious and experimental unmanned space planes currently under development — but the U.S. has not since 2011 been able to send its own astronauts into space. NASA has to rent room aboard heavy Russian rockets to send American astronauts to the International Space Station.

Beijing mission control. June 11, 2013. CCTV capture

China, meanwhile, is planning to build a space station of its own, though this will likely take many years. (Beijing is promising to have it finished within a decade, but that’s a big if.) It’s picked up the pace on its rocket launches, sending a Fengyun 3C weather-monitoring satellite into orbit on Sept. 23. The U.S., meanwhile, is trying to build new launchers and capsules for ferrying astronauts around.

The government shutdown has been a major story for Chinese media but on a matter-of-fact basis. There’s a sense Chinese officials are well aware the U.S. has been through this before. “For the Chinese government, I think they have been really accustomed to fluctuations, not only in China but in the whole financial market,” Liu Bao Cheng, an adviser to China’s Ministry of Commerce told the state-owned CCTV network.

But some gloating has made it through. “The dysfunctional Washington politics, which seems to be in a constant election campaign mode, has left many wondering to what extent the U.S. can still promote itself as a role model political system and a leader of the world,” crowed the state-owned China Daily. The reaction on social media, on the other hand, has varied widely — including many turning the shutdown back on the Chinese government.

For its part, NASA is now almost entirely shuttered as part of the government shutdown to non-essential services owing to gridlock over the Affordable Care Act. Erickson cautions that China’s leaders are almost certainly taking the broader shutdown into account.

“The world is watching the United States, while also going about its own business,” he writes. “And judging and factoring in American influence, or lack thereof, accordingly.”

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