Today there are two manned stations in space.
One is the leviathan that is the International Space Station.
450 Tonnes, 108 metres across, with a rotating crew of 6. It has been manned since 2001 and while its usefulness and costs are always debated it is a triumph of international co-operation and a demonstration of human engineering and achievement, a modern day pyramid.
The second is by comparison, tiny and at first appears to be not all that significant. China’s Tiangong-1, 60 tonnes and temporarily manned by a crew of three is not in the same league as the ISS.
But in many respects this is a more impressive achievement.
The ISS was assembled by the premier space faring nations led by the past masters of space exploration NASA. With money and decades of experience behind them the ISS was assembled in orbit using experienced astronauts, proven launchers and lessons learned from the early days of manned space flight.
One country excluded from ISS was China.
The Americans did not want them on board. So here we are in 2012 and China has gone it alone with only their 4th manned flight. China has only launched people into space four times since 2003. When NASA launched its 4th manned flight it lasted a shade under 5 hours and saw a single astronaut orbit three times. Times and technology have moved on, but it is still very impressive that China’s fourth manned mission has a crew of three, will last almost a month and involves docking space craft, setting up a temporary space station while at the same time taking the opportunity to send their first woman into space.
Amazing achievement. Incredible confidence.
But where is this new developing space rivalry headed?
While we need more space telescopes and deep space probes we may well see these pushed aside in favour of manned pods and races to build space stations and collect moon rocks.
Now I will not be sad if mankind lands back on the moon (as long as the science is good) but it has been 35 years since the Voyagers left on their monumental journey and long range probe projects are starting to look pretty thin on the ground these days and James Webb lives under the threat of cancellation…