The Chinese Long March 5 suffered a launch failure, according to Space News, tumbling down into the ocean, and taking with it an experimental communication satellite. A previous Long March 5 failed to put a Shijian-17 satellite into proper orbit. However, the upper stage of the rocket managed to put the satellite into the right orbit later. The failure, the cause of which has yet to be determined, places the schedule of China’s Sample Return Mission to the moon, a probe to Mars, and its first large space station at risk. The failure also places the United States, which plans to have several heavy-lift rockets available for deep space exploration, at a competitive advantage.

What do the Chinese plan to use the Long March 5 for?

The Long March 5 is capable of placing 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit. The Chinese plan to use the rocket for unusually heavy payloads. It is also the launch vehicle designed to take the Chang’e 5 sample return mission to the moon in November 2017, the core of China’s space station in 2019, and a probe to Mars in 2020. Everything is leading to a crewed return to the moon mission. Unless and until the anomaly that caused the Long March 5 failure can be discovered and corrected, this ambitious schedule that is designed to enhance China’s space acumen is in doubt.

America’s competitive advantage is in redundancy

Starting later in 2017 and toward the end of the current decade, the United States is going to have possibly four launch systems that will be capable of supporting deep space operations.

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy will test launch in late 2017, and be followed by the Blue Origin New Glenn, the ULA Vulcan, and NASA’s super heavy Space Launch System. This mix of launch vehicles, with different capabilities and characteristics, will ensure that the United States will not lose access to deep space destinations such as the moon and Mars because of the failure of a single rocket.

The Chinese advantage is that they have a plan

However, the Chinese have an advantage over the United States in that they have a plan and the wherewithal to execute it. The American space program is in a state of flux, with the program on record, the Journey To Mars, getting ready to morph into whatever the Trump administration wants, likely including a return to the moon.

America has a problem in that NASA has been imposed upon by shifting political winds, with the Bush-era Constellation program turning into the Journey to Mars, and now into whatever is ahead. The United States had better find a way to have a sensible space exploration plan and stick to it across multiple administrations.