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Foreign nations push into space as U.S. pulls back

Countries including China, India and Iran are engaged in a new race to explore space. Efforts include building research centers, rockets, satellites and lunar rovers.

July 22, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan and Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times

Last year, the Chinese government began building a 3,000-acre space center on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, its fourth launch facility. China, striving to become a global economic powerhouse, has touted the economic benefits of the program.

"There's a very organized propaganda effort on behalf of the Chinese government about the program," said Gregory Kulacki, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists who is based in Beijing. "They see the space program as a source of national pride."

In 2003, China became the third country to send a human into space. Three years later, it sent a probe to the moon. The country now has 21 astronauts, including two women. China is also preparing to open a space station in 2020 — the same year that the International Space Station is scheduled to shut down and de-orbit.

"The Chinese have major aspirations in space," said Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Assn. trade group. "It would be a terrible thing to watch their backs as they go into deep space while we are grounded."

China's regional neighbors have also taken note.

India has doubled its annual space budget over the last five years to $1.3 billion, said Bharath Gopalaswamy, a senior research scholar at Cornell University and Indian space analyst.

The country spent about $100 million when it sent a 3,000-pound probe, Chandrayan Pratham, or "First Journey to the Moon," to orbit the moon in 2008. Now, Indian engineers and technicians are building a rover to land on the moon's surface for the country's second moon mission, and is collaborating with the Russian government on the program.

India is also setting up a training center in the southern part of the country for astronauts. It plans to launch its first human into space by 2016, Gopalaswamy said.

"India realizes that they are not first in space," he said. "But it is important for India to show that it can build space technology and innovate."

Meanwhile, Iran, which has already launched a rat, turtles and worms into space, has plans to lift a monkey by this summer inside a capsule atop its Kavoshgar-5 rocket. The country wants to put a man into orbit by 2021.

For foreign nations, "space travel is a projection of power and pride," said Marco A. Caceres, space analyst for the aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp. "Can you imagine if the Chinese planted the flag on the moon? Americans would be envious, uneasy and questioning how it happened."

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