The United States was always (except for Sputnik) the leader in the world's push to reach into outer space. But with domestic fiscal concerns, armed forces deployed in multiple world locations, and the shuttle disaster earlier this year, it seems the United States is getting a desk job and letting the rest of the world take over the heavens.

This week the European Space Agency sent up its first lunar mission, placing into orbit lunar explorer SMART-1. The craft will not land on the moon, but will instead orbit and provide detailed moon analyses to the ESA.

And China is closer to becoming only the third nation in the world — after Russia and the United States — to launch a manned space mission. Though the actual date for liftoff is still a "state secret", analysts predict by the end of this year, and most likely later this month.

China's People's Daily newspaper's website reported: "After four unmanned trial flights, China's first-ever piloted spacecraft, the Shenzhou V is set to soar. When it does, and if successful, China will be propelled into an exclusive country club status: the third nation capable of independently rocketing humans into earth orbit."

And Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po newspaper was bold enough to announce a date for the "state secret": "Barring major technical issues and inclement weather, the historic Shenzhou V mission would likely be launched between October 11 and 17."

Without getting too teary-eyed, all this is great stuff for humans. We're pushing the boundaries and getting out to see our neighbors in this galaxy. But without international competition, we're going to see nations take their time to go where nobody's gone before. After the end of the Cold War, it's nice to see nations civil towards each other, but competition is when the real innovation will begin.

Hopefully for China, Europe, and the rest of the world, the United States will re-evaluate their lessened role in space exploration. Competition fuels creativity and spurns lethargy. Let's hope that China's push into manned space flight will help to fund new technologies in China and abroad.

After all, without space exploration we wouldn't have great things like "hook and loop" fasteners from Velcro.

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