Quick, name an American who's currently on the International Space Station. (No cheating.) Tough, right? Part of that is due to astronauts not getting much fanfare these days unless they literally put on a song-and-dance routine. But that isn't the case in China however, where the astronauts aboard the just-launched Shenzou-10 spacecraft are the nation's biggest celebrities. Look at the pages on China's papers like Xinhua, the Global Times, and People's Daily and you'll notice story after story, slideshow after slideshow, and video after video on the Shenzou-10 spacecraft and its astronauts: commander Nie Haisheng; Nie's assistant and second in command Zhang Xiaoguang; and female crew member Wang Yaping (the daughter of cherry farmers). They even posed for this odd (?) picture with President Xi Jinping:
"Shenzhou-X, atop an upgraded Long March-2F carrier rocket, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 5:38 p.m. Tuesday," reported Xinhua. That's around 5:38 a.m. on the U.S. East Coast, and the BBC notes it should take about 40 hours to get to its target altitude. "This mission, the fifth manned mission by China and slated to be the longest, is designated Shenzhou-10. It is the latest step in China's plan to eventually put a permanently manned station above the Earth," reported the BBC.
That's all pretty cool and way cooler than some space adventures of late like Iran's fake space monkey, North Korea's space junk satellite, and a couple of failed Russian spacecrafts. And China's successful mission puts even more emphasis on the idea that the current "space race" is being spearheaded by Asian countries. South Korea had launched a successful satellite in late January, joining other Asian countries like India, Japan, and North Korea to have sent a rocket into space from their own soil. And perhaps there will be an incentive in the region to keep up with China.
China's plans and steps toward a permanently-manned station above Earth is also a cutting reminder of the current state of the U.S.'s space plans which have been hampered and threatened by budget cuts. "By contrast, NASA's human spaceflight programme has struggled under changing budgets and political whims. Plans to return to the moon under George W. Bush's administration, for instance, morphed into crewed missions to an asteroid under Barack Obama's presidency," reported the New Scientist's Lisa Grossman. Of course the two nations are at wildly different points in their space programs, but so are their enthusiasm levels.
For what it's worth, the Americans currently aboard the International Space Station are Chris Cassidy and Karen Nyberg. Chris Hadfield, who gained a lot of viral fame for his rendition of "Space Oddity" and announced his retirement today, is Canadian,.