China plans to conduct its first spacewalk in October. The European Space Agency is building a roving robot to land on Mars. India recently launched a record 10 satellites into space on a single rocket.
Space, like Earth below, is globalizing. And as it does, America's long-held superiority in exploring, exploiting and commercializing "the final frontier" is slipping away, many experts believe.
Although the United States remains dominant in most space-related fields -- and owns half the military satellites currently orbiting Earth -- experts say the nation's superiority is diminishing, and many other nations are expanding their civilian and commercial space capabilities at a far faster pace.
"We spent many tens of billions of dollars during the Apollo era to purchase a commanding lead in space over all nations on Earth," said NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, who said his agency's budget is down by 20 percent in inflation-adjusted terms since 1992.
"We've been living off the fruit of that purchase for 40 years and have not . . . chosen to invest at a level that would preserve that commanding lead."
In a recent in-depth study of international space competitiveness, the technology consulting firm Futron of Bethesda found that the globalizing of space is unfolding more broadly and quickly than most Americans realize. "Systemic and competitive forces threaten U.S. space leadership," company president Joseph Fuller Jr. concluded.
Six separate nations and the European Space Agency are now capable of sending sophisticated satellites and spacecraft into orbit -- and more are on the way. New rockets, satellites and spacecraft are being planned to carry Chinese, Russian, European and Indian astronauts to the moon, to turn Israel into a center for launching minuscule "nanosatellites," and to allow Japan and the Europeans to explore the solar system and beyond with unmanned probes as sophisticated as NASA's.
While the United States has been making incremental progress in space, its global rivals have been taking the giant steps that once defined NASA:
· Following China's lead, India has announced ambitious plans for a manned space program, and in November the European Union will probably approve a proposal to collaborate on a manned space effort with Russia. Russia will soon launch rockets from a base in South America under an agreement with the European company Arianespace, whose main launch facility is in Kourou, French Guiana.
· Japan and China both have satellites circling the moon, and India and Russia are also working on lunar orbiters. NASA will launch a lunar reconnaissance mission this year, but many analysts believe the Chinese will be the first to return astronauts to the moon.
· The United States is largely out of the business of launching satellites for other nations, something the Russians, Indians, Chinese and Arianespace do regularly. Their clients include Nigeria, Singapore, Brazil, Israel and others. The 17-nation European Space Agency (ESA) and China are also cooperating on commercial ventures, including a rival to the U.S. space-based Global Positioning System.
· South Korea, Taiwan and Brazil have plans to quickly develop their space programs and possibly become low-cost satellite launchers. South Korea and Brazil are both developing homegrown rocket and satellite-making capacities.
This explosion in international space capabilities is recent, largely taking place since the turn of the century. While the origins of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Israeli and European space efforts go back several decades, their capability to pull off highly technical feats -- sending humans into orbit, circling Mars and the moon with unmanned spacecraft, landing on an asteroid and visiting a comet -- are all new developments.
In contrast to the Cold War space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the global competition today is being driven by national pride, newly earned wealth, a growing cadre of highly educated men and women, and the confidence that achievements in space will bring substantial soft power as well as military benefits. The planet-wide eagerness to join the space-faring club is palpable.
China has sent men into space twice in the past five years and plans another manned mission in October. More than any other country besides the United States, experts say, China has decided that space exploration, and its commercial and military purposes, are as important as the seas once were to the British empire and air power was to the United States.
The Chinese space program began in the 1970s, but it was not until 2003 that astronaut Yang Liwei was blasted into space in a Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, making China one of only three nations to send men into space.