With NASA’s budget problems and recent technical problems with Russia’s space program, it may seem like humanity’s race into space has run into a snag.  But there is actually tremendous progress being made.  China is moving forward with its own ambitious space program, and private companies in the U.S. are spending a lot of money to build spaceships of their own.

Courtesy: WP Clip Art

You may not be aware of this, but China has been sending people into space since 2003 and conducted its first space walk in 2008.  They’re a little late getting into this game, but they’re catching up fast.  By the end of September, 2011, the Chinese Space Agency says it will put the first segment of a new space station in orbit.

The Chinese space station, named Tiangong or “Heavenly Palace,” will be used to perform microgravity experiments similar to what is done on the International Space Station.  It will be smaller and lighter than the ISS when complete, which is an advantage because it will cost less to launch all the segments.

Meanwhile, a new spaceship factory has opened in the United States.  Located in California, this factory will build ships based on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne, which won $10 million dollars for being the first privately funded ship to carry a person into space.  Virgin Galactic is part owner of the new factory.

Virgin Galactic primarily aims to make money on space tourism, but the business of space travel has other purposes as well.  NASA still has to get astronauts to the ISS somehow, and for the moment the plan is to use private companies like a taxi service.  Corporations and universities could also use privately owned spaceships to perform microgravity experiments, and in the slightly more distant future, nations and companies might want to harvest passing asteroids for valuable metals.

Books like Ben Bova’s Asteroid Wars and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey paint a vivid picture of our near future (although Clarke picked the wrong year).  By the end of the century, humanity might not only be exploring and exploiting the solar system, but fighting over it too.

For more on China’s “Heavenly Palace,” click here.

For more on the new spaceship factory in the US, click here.

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