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Adam Minter

China Has U.S. in a Space Race

There's little question that unmanned space missions are currently cheaper and more rewarding than manned flights. But, human exploration is also about politics, technology and inspiration.
Those chairs are pretty space-agey.
Those chairs are pretty space-agey.

If and when the U.S. lands astronauts on Mars, it's likely the red Chinese flag will be planted next to the Stars and Stripes. At least, that's the unspoken conclusion at the heart of a National Research Council report on the future of the U.S. manned space program that was released last week.

It's a tough message for Americans weaned on the notion that the moon landing almost 50 years ago was merely the first step toward a U.S.-dominated cosmos. Since then, funding shortages and lack of vision are leading to "failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best," as the NRC report says. Collaboration, including with feared rivals, may be the only way forward.