China's new lunar lander is a milestone for its program, but the country hasn't leaped ahead of the U.S., the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs says.
Chang'e-3, which rendezvoused with the moon Saturday (see Page A16), put China in a small group of nations, with U.S. and Russia, that have sent spacecraft to make a "soft landing" on the lunar surface.
"It's pretty exciting for our friends in China," said Elliot Pulham, the Space Foundation's CEO. "They are doing great stuff with their space program."
China has seen a rapid rise in space activity since it sent its first astronauts into orbit in 1999. The lunar probe is seen as a step toward a manned moon mission.
"It says a lot about what China's aims and ambitions are," Pulham said. "They have made this a national priority to gain these capabilities."
While NASA is caught in an era of belt-tightening, it remains ahead of competitors.
"The U.S. has built a great capability to put landers on other bodies in the solar system," Pulham said.
The nation's manned spaceflight program, which took a hit with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, is rebounding as the new Orion space capsule nears completion.
And the U.S. remains the key player in the International Space Station.
But China is catching up quickly.
"To some degree, you could say their program is aggressive dynamic and forward and the NASA program has hit a plateau," Pulham said.
China is at the heart of an Asian ascendency in space. Japan and India also have large space programs that boast top technologies.
In September, Japan launched its new Epsilon rocket, a low-cost option for boosting satellites. India has an unmanned orbiter on the way to Mars.
But China is making waves with its lander.
"This lander on the moon is more visible than other things that happen routinely," Pulham said.
The Chinese lander consists of a mother ship and a small, solar-powered rover. The lander comes with a suite of scientific tools, including ground-penetrating radar.
While the U.S. has plenty of accomplishments to brag about in space, NASA's share of the federal budget, at $17 billion this year, keeps getting slimmer. Rather than asking for more cash, NASA is hoping for a flat $17 billion annual budget through 2018.
"As a country, we are spending less on space technology and exploration than we have in half a century," Pulham said.
But it's a different space race these days, with more reliance on partnerships and international effort to probe the cosmos.
"I think you will see increased competition, but you will also see increased cooperation," Pulham said.