By coincidence, the US Air Force X-37B orbital test vehicle has returned to Earth on the same day China launched the first crew to its Tiangong-1 space station.

Expect the news media to make much of both events.

The successful return of X-37 after 469 days is a technological feat the Air Force can be proud of. The fact that it was able to reenter and land after more than a year in space, without maintenance, speaks well for the robustness of its systems.

X-37 is not, however, a step toward cheap, routine access to space. X-37 provides a way for the Air Force to do test experimental hardware in space and bring the results back to Earth, a role previously performed by the Space Shuttle. It does not, however, demonstrate the rapid turnaround necessary for low-cost space access. It’s really more of a reusable satellite than a true military spaceplane. Boeing is calling X-37 “affordable space vehicle” but affordable is relative. It’s doubtful that anyone but the US government could afford it.

As for Tiangong, anything China does in space (which usually isn’t very much) excites the media. This time, there is a genuine achievement, with the occupancy of a Chinese space station for the first time. The fact that the crew includes Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut, also has significant PR value. Still, this does not mean not China is “catching up,” as wonks and pundits will inevitably say. China is only know duplicating feats the United States and Soviet Union accomplished decades ago, and they are duplicating it in the same unaffordable manner.

It’s ironic that Sinophobes like Rep. Frank Wolfe, who exaggerate and panic over every Chinese space accomplishment, still diminish any advance by commercial space companies such as SpaceX. We’re going to go out on a limb here and predict that the first Chinese astronaut on the Moon will be a Chinese American, and will be landed there by private enterprise.

Written by Astro1 on June 16th, 2012 , Space Exploration (General)

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