- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2012

China is pressing forward with plans to land a man on the moon. The United States, meanwhile, cannot even get an astronaut into space without hitching a ride.

Last week, Beijing released a white paper titled “China’s Space Activities in 2011,” which outlines the People's Republic of China’s new five-year plan for space. Beijing seeks to “push forward the comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable development of China’s space industry,” one aspect of which is to conduct studies “on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.” These will include launching unmanned craft into lunar orbit, practicing unmanned lunar landings, exploring the moon’s surface and bringing samples back to Earth.

Beijing is a relatively new entrant into the manned-space-flight arena but has made significant progress since 2003, when Yang Liwei became the first taikonaut to reach Earth’s orbit. Since then, China has tested docking mechanisms, launched two successful lunar probes and sent taikonauts on spacewalks. The Chinese Communist Party sees space exploration, and in particular manned space flight, as a critical component of economic progress and national achievement. China is committing itself to “push forward human spaceflight projects and make new technological breakthroughs, creating a foundation for future human spaceflight.”

Beijing’s optimism for manned space flight contrasts with the sagging U.S. space program. In July, during the final space-shuttle mission, the Atlantis touched down on the 42nd anniversary of mankind’s first steps on the moon. American astronauts now have to buy seats on Russian rockets to reach the International Space Station.

NASA somehow still envisions a future for Americans in space. In November, the agency sought candidates for a new class of astronauts, and senior leaders remained upbeat, at least publicly. “We are once again ready to go where no man or woman has gone before,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, said. “Some of the astronauts we’re recruiting today will be pioneers in our missions to make the first footprints on the surface of Mars.” This follows President Obama’s observation in April 2010 that “by the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.” He added, “I expect to be around to see it.”

Mr. Obama’s abstract musing about the possibility of a Mars mission decades hence is weak tea compared to President Kennedy’s stirring 1961 challenge for America to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Kennedy stated that “no single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind,” and “none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Eight years later, the Apollo 11 mission vindicated the late president’s vision.

Today, America lacks that type of visionary leadership. If the United States somehow does reach Mars sometime in the 2030s, it will not be because of anything Mr. Obama has done. The way things are going, our astronauts on the red planet will be greeted by a Chinese welcoming party.

The Washington Times