Although astronomy has existed as a science discipline for several millennium, mankind’s space exploration has only a relatively short history. Unfortunately, the early space exploration was driven by a hostile space race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. The Soviet Union launched the first human-made object, grand-father of today’s satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957 to orbit the Earth. The Soviet space effort also achieved sending an object to touch the moon on September 13, 1959, sending the first human (Yuri Gagarin, Cosmonaut or Astronaut) into space in 1961. The first space walk by Alex Leonov on March 18, 1965, the first automatic landing on another celestial object in 1968.
The U.S. was under pressure to compete with the Soviet in space exploration, (Competition can be a motivation factor but not with hostility! See below.) it was only in 1969, July 20, the U.S. made the first crewed mission, Apollo 11 for Moon landing where Neil Armstrong became the first human touching the Moon and amazed the world. Then six unmanned missions followed. In 1971, the Soviet launched the first Space Station (Salyut I). Later the space effort switched to renewable hardware approach (Space Shuttle) for cost reasons then shifting space competition a little to space cooperation as exhibited by the International Space Station (ISS) program. However, ISS is managed like an exclusive golf club with limited membership (for instance, China was excluded) and expensive member fees.
The funding of ISS became a concern in the 21st century (funding requires national budget approval) which obviously affects the approaches and planning of space exploration. In Bush era, there was the return to the Moon program, but in 2009, Obama modified the underfunded program to focus on the development of the capability for crewed missions beyond Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), envisioning extending the operation of the ISS beyond 2020, transferring the development of launch vehicles for human crews from NASA to private sector, and developing technology to enable missions to beyond LEO, such as the Moon, other near-Earth asteroids and Mars.
In the 2000s, Asian countries initiated their space programs, China launched a successful manned space flight, India launched an unmanned spacecraft orbiting 100Km over the Moon, EU and Japan also planned future crewed space missions to the Moon. Private interests promoting space tourism, public space exploration encouragement (Google X Prize) and private corporation like SpaceX developing reusable 'starship' did generate public/private interest in space exploration but the real serious progress still relies on national focus and funding.
Perhaps, the competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during 1955-1980 did teach us a lesson. The competition indeed accelerated progress but it is really because of funding and human talents were poured into the space program. If we could really pool the talents and funding together to pursue a coordinated cooperative space exploration program, say under the management of the UN, wouldn’t we achieve 1+1=2 or even possibly 1+1>2 results compared to 1:1 < 1 (against each other) result. There is a big difference between pure competition which produces one winner versus competition with cooperation which can produce a winner and a close second or third. This reminds me some people's false belief that two nations competing with each can not have win-win result.
China was excluded from the U.S. led ISS space program. Under the technology sanction by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, China had no choice but struggle on her own in space exploration. She was motivated by the Russian Sputnik 1 in 1957 hence she established a goal to develop satellite which required missile, spacecraft and orbiter supported by automation and computer control. Being poor, sanctioned and feeling insecure, her rocket and missile program took priority with defense focus over space application. From 1958-1992, China’s rocket R&D was essentially for developing defense missiles up to ICBM. Only in 1993, China established Aerospace Industry Corporation (National Space Bureau, NSB).
Since 1998, the U.S. Congress had barred American companies to provide parts for China’s satellite and missile development. In April, 2011, the 112th Congress banned NASA using funds to host Chinese visitors. In March, 2013, Congress barred Chinese to enter NASA without a waiver. The Chinese responded by offering her space labs to other nations and welcoming all space scientists from all over the world to China. Reviewing the progress of China’s space program in a time-line can enhance my point that competition without cooperation is a bad model and competition with cooperation (like Olympic Games) can produce not only champions but also close seconds and thirds raising everyone’s achievement level.
China had little achievement before 1970, the year she sent her first satellite (Dong Fang 1) to space. On 11/26/1975, she succeeded in recoverable satellite. Twenty-four years later (11/20/1999), China sent her first unmanned spacecraft (ShenZhou 1) to space and followed with 3 more in 2001-2002. October 15, 2013, China sent her first astronaut (Yang LiWei) to space with China's own rocket. China sent two men for 5 days in space on 10/12/2005 and first unmanned orbiter (Chang’e 1) on 11/5/2007 entering the moon orbit after 12 days. On 9/25/2008, China became the third nation sending a manned rocket (ShenZhou VII) and an astronaut to walk in space and on 10/1/2010, she sent her 2nd lunar exploration probe to celebrate her national day. First space lab (Tiangong 1) demonstrated docking and other functions on 9/29/2011 and docking between two spacecrafts on 11/3/2011. China became the third nation making soft landing on the moon on 12/14/2013 and deployed second space lab on 9/15/2016 (Tiangong 2). China landed Chang’e 4 on the far side of the moon first ever for mankind on 1/3/2019. On 6/23/2020, China put her final satellites in space to complete her Beidou geo-positioning system. Finally, China sent an unmanned probe to Mars on 7/23/2020 a week earlier than the U.S. perseverance rover, both later arrived in Mars orbit in February 2021.
In space language, Earth time of a day, a month, a year or a century is insignificant. If there is another civilization in space, it could be easily millions of years ahead of Earth civilization. Reviewing mankind’s space exploration (less than 80 years) discussed above, the author finds it amazing that any nation would think space exploration nationalistically. When the U.S. and Soviet Union were competing in space race, there was no winner only slowed progress because of no cooperation with each other. When the West is sanctioning China in space exploration, it failed in the end as China not only caught up but made faster and faster progress because of her investment in capital and human talents. Chinese delegates missing at the 2019 International Astronautics Conference held in Washington DC due to visa problem was a very disturbing news. China is a significant contributor now to the space science and industry (see Chinese Society of Astronautics and China Space Foundation joint conference and exhibits in Fujian, China in 2020), what will the U.S. gain by blocking their participation in an international conference? Will that help NASA accelerate its space program?
As an earthling, a global citizen and a human being, I see a serious problem If Space Exploration is not managed as a mankind program for the benefit of mankind. If any space program is managed nationalistically, it will only enhance the possibility of space war, more deadly than a nuclear weapon. Therefore, I urge all people to think rationally and to promote the idea of placing all space exploration programs under UN management, call it World Space Organization (WSO), with rules and regulations to guide and control mankind's space exploration.
Ifay Chang. Ph.D., Inventor, Author, TV Game Show Host and Columnist (www.us-chinaforum.org) as well as serving as Trustee, Somers Central School District.