Richard Luscombe 

September 30, 2011

After edging out the Soviets and winning the race to land a human on the moon in 1969, the United States has enjoyed more than four decades unchallenged as the world’s dominant force in space. The launch on Thursday of the first stage of a new Chinese space station could be seen as the beginnings of a shift in that power.

That China has joined the US and Russia as the third nation with the capability of a permanent crewed presence in space is not, in itself, a significant challenge to American supremacy. Nasa launched its first habitable research laboratory, Skylab, in 1973, and even if China’s Tiangong-1 remains safely in orbit after its arrival, it is still likely to be at least another year before its astronauts are able to make any kind of extended-duration stay.

The wider concern of those who follow the US space programme is the converse trajectories the two nations appear to be taking in support of their ambitions in space.

China, which has invested millions of dollars in recent years into a burgeoning space programme, now has a flagship piece of hardware already off the launchpad. Nasa currently has no manned launch capability of its own for crewed vehicles following the retirement of the space shuttle fleet this summer.

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