CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – The Soviets beat the United States at getting a satellite, and a man, into space. Now, the Chinese may get to the moon before the U.S. can make a return visit.
Fifty years after Sputnik became the world's first artificial satellite, a new race is under way with the finish line on the moon. NASA, the former lunar champion, already is predicting defeat.
"I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a low-key lecture in Washington two weeks ago, marking the space agency's 50th anniversary, still a year away.
"I think when that happens, Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it."
Griffin's candor startled many in the space community, but insiders acknowledge the reality. China has pulled off two manned spaceflights with its own rockets and is eager to head for the moon.
NASA has a 2020 deadline for returning Americans to the moon. China would like to beat that.
It has a probe poised for a launch to the moon, supposedly before year's end. The lunar orbiter is to be followed by a lander and then, by 2017, a robotic mission to return moon rocks. Whether China could land one of its "taikonauts" there before American astronauts arrive is uncertain.
The U.S. is "more technically advanced. We certainly could be back on the moon faster than the Chinese, but we don't have the political will and therefore the resources to do it," said Joan Johnson-Freese, head of the Naval War College's national security decision-making department.
Russia — the early day winner with the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, and the first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961 — is no longer the competitor it was under the Soviet Union banner.
Although Russia is a key player in the international space station, with its Soyuz rockets regularly ferrying crews and cargo, it's figuring to team up with the United States in the moon arena.
It was just four years ago that China became only the third country in the world to launch its own rockets with people on board. Now it is aiming to build its own space station to orbit Earth, as well as a mission to the moon in 10 to 15 years.
Unlike the intense, cash-heavy days of the late 1950s and 1960s, budget constraints have slowed NASA's previous rocket-fast pace. It will be 16 years from the time President Bush set the lunar goal in 2004 — if NASA even gets to the moon by 2020.
That's twice as long as it took after President Kennedy issued the challenge in 1961; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin fulfilled it in July 1969.
"Apollo was a Cold War program. It was as much a war-fighting program as any tank or plane," and both the U.S. and Soviet Union were starting from the same place, Johnson-Freese said. The Chinese, on the other hand, started halfway up the learning curve, she noted, having borrowed their spacecraft design from the Russians.
NASA insists it's not a race anymore, with grander, longer-range goals than Apollo's flags and footprints. Think lunar bases, with encapsulated minivans for transporting astronauts.
"The U.S. has to get over this feeling that it has to be a competition," said White House science adviser John Marburger.
Competition or no, the prize will encompass more than any lunar treasures.
"I think we will see, as we have seen with China's introductory manned space flights so far, we will see again that nations look up to nations that appear to be at the top of the technical pyramid and they want to do deals with those nations," Griffin said.
"That's one of the things that made us the world's greatest economic power. So I think we'll be reinstructed in that lesson in the coming years."