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Ian O'Neill
Ian O'Neill
Ian O'Neill is the Space Science Producer at Discovery News, and founder and editor of Astroengine.
Eastern space politics meets Western space business
The US space programme needs to turn to private entrepreneurs to fund its astronauts, or face being overtaken by China.
Last Modified: 07 Jul 2012 15:09
The SpaceX Dragon capsule was the first private spacecraft to dock with the ISS [NASA/SpaceX]

On June 29, China skyrocketed into spaceflight history after becoming only the third nation ever to accomplish a manned in-orbit docking manoeuvre. The three adventurers, Jing Haipeng, Liu Wang - and China's first female astronaut Liu Yang - returned to Earth safely, re-entering over Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China. While in orbit, the three taikonauts - as Chinese astronauts are known - oversaw automatic and manual docking procedures between the space capsule Shenzhou-9 and space station prototype module Tiangong-1. This manned mission built on the strategies and docking techniques developed for the successful November 2011 unmanned docking test-run between the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft and Tiangong-1. These procedures will help the nation refine space technologies and skills for future missions to orbit and, potentially, beyond.

Liu Yang, Jing Haipeng, and Liu Wang (l-r) rocketed into history on board the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft

In stark contrast to the tightly controlled stream of patriotic information leaking from the often secretive nation, the US also saw an historic space "first" only the month before. On May 31, the privately owned spaceflight company Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, saw its unmanned space capsule, the Dragon, splash-down off the coast of Baja California. Owned by internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, the Dragon, only days earlier, had demonstrated an orbital docking manoeuvre of its own - it had become the first ever private spacecraft to berth with the International Space Station.

Of course, with two space "firsts" coinciding only a month apart - by two nations that are being increasingly seen as economic and military competitors on the world stage - some commentators are hinting that we may be seeing the emergence of a new "space race", akin to that between the US and Soviet Russia in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, the political and military impetus drove space technology on an exponential path that culminated with NASA's Neil Armstrong putting bootprints on the Moon - the US had "won" that particular race. But in these peculiar economic times, will we see a "Space Race 2.0" between a communist China and private US corporations?

Although this may sound like a tempting parallel, we are actually watching two quasi-independent space races take shape. Forget the Cold War, there is little comparison. This is a crossroads in a space era that the world has never seen and its ultimate impact on our push to the stars is far from certain.

Chinese space momentum

The docking of two spacecraft in orbit is regarded as a critical step for any space-faring nation (or, indeed, spaceflight company). The US did its first manned docking in 1965 during the Gemini Program and the Soviets carried out the manoeuvre in 1969 as part of the Soyuz program. To assemble large spacecraft and space stations, you can't launch hundreds of tons of space hardware in one go; you need to send up modules and attach them in low-Earth orbit. It is common sense, but it's also one of the toughest technological hurdles (aside from getting stuff up into space in the first place) facing any burgeoning space programme.

For China, since the communist state was frozen out of involvement with the ISS collaboration, they had to "go it alone" in space. Standing on the foundation of a huge economy, the People's Republic of China has spearheaded an ambitious government-led program with an ultimate goal of landing a man (or woman) on the moon. But in the near-term, they hope to construct a permanently manned space station by 2020; an interesting goal, considering the ISS is set to be mothballed around that time.

"When the Chinese can reach the moon and we cannot, I don't see why any other nation would regard us as a world leader"

- Michael Griffin, former Nasa administrator

Chinese space ambitions have caused some political worry in the US. What happens if China does build its space station and has the only orbiting outpost in 2020? What if they do succeed becoming a second nation to put men and women on the moon? What if their ambitions have enough momentum to establish a lunar base?

Space treaties and politics won't be written by the international community, they will be dictated by China, who will have just established the ultimate strategic "high ground". Should this happen, China will have succeeded where the US failed - they'll become the real winners of the space race that began more than half a century ago. And if China can make a moon base sustainable? Well, that would be the ultimate "Holy Grail" of spaceflight - a foothold on the moon would look more like a launch pad to the Solar System.

"In my opinion, China understands what it takes to be a great power. We have written the script for them," former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said at a hearing before a NASA oversight committee in 2011.

"They are a near-peer competitor of ours and I would worry very much about the future of this nation if we were not - and if we were not seen by all - to be a world leader," he said. "When the Chinese can reach the moon and we cannot, I don't see why any other nation would regard us as a world leader."

NASA's taxi rides

Still regarded as the world's premier space agency, NASA has been stymied by years of budgetary cuts and political posturing. NASA's human spaceflight program in particular has suffered. The shuttle fleet was retired in 2011 after 30 years of service. Although the shuttle had its problems - including two disasters - at least it was a glimpse at what sustainable spaceflight could look like, despite the fact the shuttle certainly wasn't sustainable and became a black hole for NASA's budget.

After shuttle retirement - and the shuttle programme's replacement, Constellation, became a bloated and over-budget punch bag for policymakers, culminating in cancellation - the US was left with no means of getting astronauts into space. Now the US space agency pays its old Cold War enemy - and current space "frienemy" - a premium of $63m per seatfor taxi rides aboard the Soyuz capsule.

"Neither the US economy nor its politics are in any state to rejuvenate a Cold War injection of cash for a new space race with China."

Neither the US economy nor its politics are in any state to rejuvenate a Cold War injection of cash for a new space race with China. It remains to be seen, in eight years time when China fulfils its space station dreams, whether that will change. But in an effort to at least become independent from Russia to get cargo and astronauts into space, NASA provided "seed" money to a handful of companies to develop private cargo launch capabilities. Another programme aims to provide contracts for piloted launches to a low-Earth orbit.

SpaceX became the first to fulfil the private spaceflight dream of developing, launching and safely returning its own space capsule in 2010. In May of this year, the company proved that they can also safely dock with the ISS, delivering cargo. The next step is to see another private spaceflight company, Orbital Sciences Corp, carry out its own cargo runs to the station.

In addition to SpaceX, aerospace giant Boeing, entrepreneur Jeff Bezos' Blue Origins and Sierra Nevada Corporation have all won funding under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2) to develop human launch capabilities. This is all under the overarching goal for the US to have the ability to carry out routine "taxi-rides" into orbit by companies that NASA will hire.

NASA can then focus its funds on the big projects, pushing the envelope of human and robotic exploration of the Solar System, while companies provide services for a profit. In the ever-optimistic goal of spearheading a manned mission to an asteroid and, potentially, Mars, the space agency is now focused on building a huge rocket - known as the Space Launch System (SLS) - reminiscent of the Saturn V that blasted men to the moon and put the first US space station, Skylab, into orbit in 1973.

Beyond private cargo and crew launch programmes managed by NASA, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has big plans beyond Earth-orbit. Technologies from NASA's vast wealth of spaceflight experience is trickling down into the private sector, allowing Musk to think big - he wants SpaceX to develop a means for humanity to escape the confines of Earth orbit and access Mars. Within the next couple of decades, assuming continued business success, by Musk's reckoning his company will transport the first humans to the Martian surface.

Old-fashioned space exploration

But what of China? As with any government-run space agency, we are seeing the nation emerge as a strong space exploration contender. But the impetus for China's push for space isn't just for exploration sake. It's a matter of national pride, perceived political dominance and economic prowess that China is driving ahead with its space station plans and ultimate moon landing. Whether or not this becomes a possibility remains to be seen, but so long as China remains an economic powerhouse, it seems unlikely they'll shy away from space, at least in the near-term.

But SpaceX is a different spaceflight animal. SpaceX - despite Musk's noble and exciting view to make the human race "multi-planetary" - needs to make profit, like any other company, to survive. So long as profit can be made by providing launch services to governments and companies, SpaceX may be able to fulfill its Martian goals. China, on the other hand, has a "blank cheque" to succeed in space. So long as the politics are there, they will put a Chinese national on the moon by doing it the "old fashioned" way.

But keep in mind that China is just starting out, and although their technology is impressive, they are years (maybe decades) behind the capabilities and experience of NASA. The US space agency has reached a point in its evolution that it cannot support (on its current budget) the breadth of human spaceflight, and fulfil its commitment to push further and deeper into space. It now needs private partnerships to boost its capabilities. This may not be a proven strategy yet, and it certainly has its critics, but it's an exciting prospect that we're starting to see entrepreneurs, not politicians, shape the motivation behind the exploration of space.

China may well succeed in continuing where NASA left off, setting up a base on the moon and perhaps even reaching Mars. But it seems more likely that corporations will get there first, providing launch services to other entities, potentially unlocking the infinite resources of our Solar System.

As history has taught us, politics is fickle, but business empires care little for government agendas or national borders. If there are resources to be claimed and services needed, there's a potential fortune to be made in space. It's not only humanity that will eventually become multi-planetary; the corporations driving us there will be, too.

Ian O'Neill is Space Science Producer for Discovery News. He is also the founder and editor of space blogAstroengine.

Follow him on Twitter: @astroengine

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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