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U.S. Lagging in Modern-Day Space Race

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its final landing at the Kennedy Space Center in July 2011, NASA's future plans to launch astronauts were left up in the air.  This, even as other countries, notably China, said they had concrete exploration plans and committed budgets.

In the original space race of the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union launched the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in 1961.  The United States gradually caught up; Neil Armstrong was first to walk on the moon in 1969.

In the decades that followed, Russia concentrated on space stations while the U.S. tried to turn its space shuttle into an affordable way to launch astronauts and satellites.  But after the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, the U.S. decided to wind the program down.   It is now trying to outsource some launches to private companies such as SpaceX, while NASA, working with a limited budget, develops plans for deep space exploration.

Meanwhile, the Chinese space program moves slowly along.  In June it launched its first female "taikonaut" -- as Chinese astronauts are known -- and performed a docking with an orbiting laboratory.  It talks of establishing its own space station by 2020 and later sending explorers to the moon.

The member states of the European Space Agency have committed more than 10 billion Euro to upgrade their own rockets.  The Europeans will provide the propulsion unit for NASA's newest spaceship, Orion, which has a scheduled test launch in September of next year. But with no mandate from the Obama Administration or Congress, plans to send astronauts back to the moon or on to Mars are, for now, going nowhere.

This week Christiane speaks with George Abbey, a senior fellow in Space Policy at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, and, from 1996 to 2001, the director of the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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