The American manned space program is one of the most cited examples of the country’s technical prowess and can-do spirit, a top-line-of-the-resume achievement whose anniversary is remembered fondly and proudly every year. The sad part is how many anniversaries have come and gone without an equally impressive accomplishment in manned space flight. It’s a little alarming to realize that, in many ways, the US manned space flight program peaked more than 40 years ago, declining to the point of riding coach on a Russian rocket – whose space program we supposedly vanquished all those decades ago – to low Earth orbit. It’s the interplanetary equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg bumming a ride to an internet café aboard the Winklevoss twins' rowboat.
America’s manned spaceflight holding pattern has been accompanied by the rise of China’s space program – a microcosm of the Rome-syndrome meta discussion preoccupying the American literati. This trend looks to continue in 2012 as NASA awaits a clear directive and China continues its methodical, if unrushed, human spaceflight program. In late December, China unveiled its latest five-year plan for space activities, which includes orbital laboratories and progress toward its goal of placing taikonauts on the moon by 2020. Manned spaceflight has always been inextricably linked to national pride and a perceived prestige on the global stage, and it will be interesting to see how significant the role of space exploration is in this shifting balance of power.