By Leroy Chiao
(CNN) — China started out the year by doing something that no nation has done before: It landed a spacecraft and an accompanying rover on the far side of the moon with an ambitious scientific payload package and an exciting mission ahead to study the interior structure of the moon with the help of ground-penetrating radar, among other things.
Almost equally impressive from a technical standpoint, China successfully placed a communication relay satellite into a lunar halo orbit to enable the command of, and communication with, both the spacecraft and rover, which do not have line-of-sight views of Earth for direct radio contact.
I had mixed feelings about these events.
I was born in the United States, but my parents were both born in China, before they made their way to Taiwan and immigrated to America in the 1950s. On the one hand, I am proud of my heritage and what China has accomplished. On the other, my family is American, and we take pride in US accomplishments. And because the Apollo moon landing in 1969 was what inspired me to become an astronaut, I strongly believe the US can and should maintain a leading role in space exploration.
China has surpassed all other nations with a new achievement. Though not exactly poised to take the United States’ spot, China has fired a warning shot. The US must now step up its game to maintain its place as the leader.
While China is preparing its space station, with plans to start sending parts up in 2020, America is planning to exit the International Space Station — the collaborative effort of 15 nations — in 2024-2025. According to an internal NASA document obtained by The Washington Post in early 2018, the plan is based on the unrealistic idea that we can transition management of the facility to a commercial entity.
The ISS was never designed to be operated profitably. Mission control centers in Houston and Moscow must be permanently staffed to support it, and launch and landing costs would be prohibitive to any commercial entity.
Meanwhile, China could land astronauts on the moon as early as the 2030s, leapfrogging NASA in their lunar capabilities.
But perhaps the US should have seen this coming. In 1965, at the height of the Apollo program, NASA had 5.3% of the federal budget. Today, even though the budget is a slightly higher than it has been in recent years, it sits at around just 0.4%.
With those measly funds, NASA’s ambitions are inevitably limited. This doesn’t seem likely to change, with the White House seemingly more intent on creating the so-called “Space Force,” a new military branch, than investing in a real space exploration program.
To be fair, we are still doing some amazing things in space. Very recently, the New Horizons spacecraft, after making groundbreaking discoveries and images of Pluto, went on to image Ultima Thule — by far the most distant object ever imaged — at about 4 billion miles from Earth. The OSIRIS REx spacecraft established orbit around the 500 meter-diameter asteroid Bennu, some 200 km from Earth. It will bring back a sample of the asteroid for analysis. The Parker Solar Probe is performing ground-breaking measurements of our sun. The Mars InSight spacecraft just landed on Mars to do studies that have never been done before, like seismic studies.
These great missions notwithstanding, our space program could be on the verge of being outdone. It is a classic case of the “Tortoise and the Hare.” We have been so used to being on top for so long that our politicians have gotten complacent.
Indeed, the failure to prioritize our space capabilities is nothing new. President Barack Obama proclaimed that America would go to Mars by the 2030s but did not sufficiently prioritize funding the program.
Now we have come to the moment of China’s ascendency in space exploration. We must face the reality that it has, in a small but significant way, shown the world that it can be the first to accomplish things in space, too. We had better realize this soon, or we may very well wake up to find that we are no longer top dog in the space business. And if we don’t learn from our complacency in space, we could end up losing our edge in other areas as well.