Wednesday, October 8, 2008

2008: first space walk by Chinese spaceman, as US space program fades away

On September 28 astronaut Zhai Zhigang became the first Chinese man to walk in space.

But in a week where China blasted men into orbit -- and launched an ambitious project that could see them on the moon by 2017 -- American space scientists were fearing they could be left behind in the space race with the news NASA is being hit hard by the credit crunch.

The US space agency, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, is short of funds and, with little hope of more government money, experts warn it will be stuck in a five-year time warp without a spaceship to take astronauts into space.

The ageing, accident prone space shuttles are to be retired in 2010 -- but the next US space vehicle, a traditional rocket called Orion, will not be ready until 2015.
Meanwhile there were happy scenes in China as Zhai clambered out of China's Shenzhou VII space craft and waved to the camera.

"I'm feeling quite well. I greet the Chinese people and the people of the world," Zhai said as he climbed out of the craft, his historic achievement carried live on state television.

The 41-year-old son of a snack-seller chosen for the first extra-vehicular activity, unveiled a small Chinese flag, helped by colleague Liu Boming, who also briefly popped his head out of the capsule. The third crew member, Jing Haipeng, monitored the ship from inside the re-entry module.

Zhai safely returned inside the craft after about 13 minutes. The walk marked the highpoint of China's third manned space journey, which has received blanket media coverage.

The fast-growing Asian power wants to be sure of a say in how space and its potential resources are used. But for NASA the future does not look so bright.
Even to get to the orbiting International Space Station in the intervening years, the US must rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for transport, at a time when relations are rapidly deteriorating as the Kremlin flexes its muscles in areas like Georgia and Venezuela.

Joseph Alexander, of the respected Space Studies Board of the US National Academy of Sciences, said he worries that NASA is being set up to fail.

Dr Alexander said, "The program is in danger of completely running aground at this point. Within the constraints that this administration has put on NASA's budget, you can't get anywhere."

Alarmed members of Congress, and Republican candidate John McCain, have asked President Bush to keep the shuttle flying. But that would cost nearly $2 billion a year, so beleaguered Presidet Bush will leave the expensive decision to his successor.

Things were vastly different on October 1, 1958, when President Eisenhower created NASA on a wave of patriotic enthusiasm to take on the Soviet Union in the space race.

Since then NASA has put the first man on the moon, and there have been successful robotic probes to Venus, Mars and other planets.

The agency built the enormously successful Hubble telescope, and repaired it in space when things went wrong. It also helped build the International Space Station, although nobody knows what to do with it now that it is nearly finished.

It has been expensive in human lives. The US and Russia together have had 30 astronauts and more than 70 ground crew killed in space-related accidents. The financial cost is literally out of this world, although no one has any real idea how much has been spent on space programs.

NASA still has ambitious plans. Griffin said, "What we've put in place is a system capable of taking human beings around the inner solar system. One day, I have no doubt, you'll see people a million miles from home, exploring the final frontier. Fundamentally, it's about long-term human survival. If we believe that human life is worth preserving, then we have to face the fact that the history of life on Earth is the history of extinction. To survive, mankind must find other planets to live on."

He was, hopefully, talking thousands of years in the future. But experts say more immediately, NASA will have to abandon its traditional "do it our way" approach and co-operate with more foreign partners, and private enterprise, if it wants to stay in the space race.

Meanwhile China's Communist Party leaders are celebrating the latest space mission, hailing the country's achievements in a year in which Beijing has staged a successful Olympics and coped with a devastating earthquake in Sichuan.

China's first manned spaceflight was in 2003. A second, two-manned flight followed in 2005. The only other countries that have sent people into space are Russia and the United States. (info from The Daily Mail)

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