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June 23, 2017

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Will China, India rivalry be start of a new space race?

Freeze-dried food, athletic shoes, smoke detectors and laptop computers. A rather eclectic list, but all products that have one thing in common: they were created directly for, or inspired by, the "Space Race" between the U.S. and USSR. As China touts its recent successful landing of a rover on the moon and India's probe speeds toward Mars, we are perhaps entering a second Space Race era — with all the benefits and potential dangers of the first one.

From the moment the Soviet Union put Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957, the race was on between it and the U.S., each one fearing that falling behind in the realm of spaceflight would prove disastrous. While the USSR beat the U.S. in several key early milestones — the first man in space, the first spacewalk — the culmination of this era came with America's Apollo program; when man first set foot on the moon.

Following this victory, however, it seems as if the two programs have slowed their rate of advance. The Space Shuttle, first launched in 1981, was NASA's main — and only — orbital vehicle up until its retirement in 2011. Its replacement, the Orion, is not slated to enter service until 2020. And while the past few decades have seen some important milestones in the exploration of space, such as the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), few have managed, at least in the Western world, to capture the imagination of the planet like the original space race did.

Not so in other parts of the world. Both India and China have been pushing ahead on their own. In 2003, China joined the U.S. and Russia to become one of only three nations to have independently put a person into orbit.

Since that first mission, China has launched four manned missions, in addition to a temporary space station. A second temporary space laboratory is planned for 2015, with a permanent orbital installation to come "before 2020." The government has stated that a mission to the moon is an objective, with a tentative date of 2025.

India, having not yet achieved manned spaceflight, is still determined not to be outdone by its neighbor and sometimes-rival. Its space program grabbed headlines in November with the successful launch of an unmanned mission to Mars. The Mangalyaan probe is currently expected to arrive at Mars in September of this year. While the Indian space program's resources are slightly more limited than China's, India still has big plans for the future, including its own manned missions.

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