Space Exploration: Could China produce the next Sputnik? taikonauts NIE Haisheng and FEI Junlong at one of China’s space centers. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Can you say: “taikonaut”? You’d better learn the term before we see a taikonaut on live TV walking on the moon. It’s the Chinese term, in English characters, for what we’ve called an astronaut. While our country is cutting way back on manned space exploration, China is eager to take our place in outer space. For several years now, the Chinese Shenzou Program has been sending taikonauts aloft on pre-lunar-landing training missions.

Now, how do you feel about grounding the shuttle and, with it, America’s manned space exploration?

A theme in the national conversation about the end of the U.S. shuttle program is China’s rapidly rising space ambitions. The consensus is that what China lacks in technology and experience it makes up in economic wherewithal, political will and a long view of history. China could surpass the U.S.

China has reached several key milestones in the last several years—putting an astronaut in space, sending a moon probe, and a spacewalk. All these happened decades after the U.S. and Russia did the same, but it reveals a trend of deepening capabilities. Now, China plans to start building its own space station, send a rover to the moon, and—in about a decade—put its Neil Armstrong on the moon. Eventually, China wants a long-term presence on the moon—and a similar presence in near-earth orbit. Some worry that one day Americans will look up at earth’s satellite and see Chinese real estate. Others fret the possible military implications of China’s space ambitions.

Unless we mount a renewed space effort, a nation like China may achieve space leadership and claim this symbol of global power and influence. Since the U.S. has been the leader for so long, the loss of leadership would symbolize the decline of U.S. power and influence.

Perhaps, however, rivals for space leadership may spur healthy competition. A string of Chinese accomplishments could be the equivalent of Sputnik—a wake-up call to re-invest in science, engineering, and big dreams.

What do you think?

Do Chinese ambitions spur you to support more U.S. space exploration?

Do you welcome other nations exploring outer space and the moon?

Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

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