The space race shifts gears

Hurray! We’re going back into space with manned missions! Well… when I say “we” it’s more in the sense of “we” as a species. A manned mission into space lifted off early yesterday morning – East Coast time – from China. And even the phrase “manned” is getting an bit of a twist which is unusual for China, as it included their first female astronaut.

China launched its most ambitious space mission yet Saturday, carrying its first female astronaut and two male colleagues in an attempt to dock with an orbiting module and work on board for more than a week.

The Shenzhou 9 capsule lifted off as scheduled at 6:37 p.m. (1237 GMT) from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on the edge of the Gobi Desert. All systems functioned normally and, just over 10 minutes later, it opened its solar panels and entered orbit.

Female astronaut Liu Yang, 33, and two male crew members β€” veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng and newcomer Liu Wang β€” are to dock the spacecraft with a prototype space lab launched last year in a key step toward building a permanent space station.

So the Chinese are putting up a space station. It’s a bit less ambitious than Skylab, Mir or the ISS, reportedly being roughly the size and shape of a bus. They also announced at the same time that they plan to put an astronaut on the moon by 2020.

I can understand a number of reasons why China is doing this. One of the biggest is more political than scientific. The Chinese want to demonstrate to the world that they are truly one of the advanced, “first world” nations and a leader in more than just making cheap sneakers. They also get to show off their economic leadership as other countries scale back on space programs due to the costs involved. But low orbit space flight has practical uses as well, since they’ll be able to put up communications satellites and astronomical equipment.

What I don’t get is the idea of going to the moon. It’s been done, and every reason I hear for going back always rings rather hollow. But hey… it’s their money.

Meanwhile, never to be outdone, the United States is ready to one-up the Chinese. You’re going to send up a rocket? Well, we’re building UFOs, baby!

The X-47B, the Navy’s new experimental drone, caused a stir in the Washington area when residents mistook the sleek, bat-winged robotic jet for a UFO.

The drone was strapped to the back of a big rig en route this week to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert.

Along the way motorists snapped photos and took to Twitter to describe their astonishment. Others, according to a Fox station affiliate in Washington, were so perplexed they called police.

In case you haven’t seen it before, check this bad boy out.

X47b Drone

Why do we need UFOs now? Lest you forgot, the Mayan Apocalypse is nigh, and SMOD2012 came by for a visit just this past Thursday. Prepare, citizens.

Edit: Thank goodness for all the free editors. This was assembled yesterday but pushed back for other breaking stories. Yes, it’s “astronomical,” thank you. And the launch date was yesterday morning, not today. Thanks. πŸ™‚

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