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Will the United States still lead in space exploration?

Question submitted by Gabriel, from Paris, France, August 5, 2013

Answered by: Frank G. Klotz, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies and Arms Control

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The United States has always been a leader in space exploration. It has landed astronauts on the Moon, launched robotic systems to explore the surface of Mars and the other planets of the solar system, and forged a successful partnership with other countries to assemble, operate, and conduct leading-edge scientific research on the International Space Station (ISS).

The United States currently faces a number of challenges in maintaining its capability to explore space. Since NASA retired the Space Shuttle in 2011, the United States cannot launch humans into space from U.S. soil on an American rocket. NASA plans for commercial companies to develop the capability to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. However, this service will not be available until at least 2017. In the meantime, the United States relies on Russia to transport its astronauts into low-earth orbit.

Looking further ahead, NASA is developing the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System to send astronauts deeper into space. While the ultimate objective is to travel to Mars, there is currently debate over whether Americans should first return to the Moon or fly to other deep space destinations, such as an asteroid, to develop the necessary technology and skills for such a long-endurance mission.

Space exploration is an expensive undertaking. It requires substantial investment in intellectual capital and highly advanced hardware. However, more nations are developing the capability to explore space. The Russians and the European Union have been active in the field for decades, and the United States already cooperates with them on several fronts. In June, a three-person Chinese crew completed a 15-day mission in orbit. While the United States is on course to remain a leader in human space flight and robotic space exploration, there will be many more opportunities to work collaboratively with other nations in the future.