Two Space Races in One?
This weekend China successfully launched humans into orbit and now has docked their Tiangong 1 and Shenzhou 9 spacecraft. The three Chinese astronauts (two men and one woman) will work aboard the combined mini-spacestation for ten days. They achieved some major milestones for themselves last week (including launching their first woman astronaut) and helped facilitate a historical moment for the world because there will be two occupied space stations in operation during that time.
Will Congress and the Presidency take this as a wake up call as they did when Russia snuck ahead of us in the first space race and we turned space exploration into a national security issue? In the late 1950s and early 60s and we poured money and national podium pounding into results, becoming the first and only nation on Earth to send humans to the moon. While it’s true that the U.S. can’t currently launch humans into space, it is not a question of know how or infrastructure. It is only for the lack of a launch vehicle and spacecraft, and only barely that. What the Chinese are doing this week we did the first time in the days of Skylab, back when the impatient old man writing this article was just a boy. But here’s the thing, Tiangong looks a lot like Mir, so China is obviously not going to take as long as the U.S. and the Soviets did to get where we and the Russians are today because the Chinese have access to some of what Roscosmos and NASA lessons learned along the way.
This is what Congress and the news media will tell you, and it is the truth. The accomplishments this week are China playing catch-up…having to do on their own what they should be doing in partnership with the rest of the world, if only people trusted them. China has effectively reinvented the U.S. Skylab and the Soviet Mir…developed separately back in the 70s and 80s because the U.S. and the USSR didn’t trust each other…when they should be building modules for the IIS under International knowledge sharing agreements and sending people up to the IIS on Soyuz (or maybe even Shenzhou). They go in space as they go on the ground…their own way. This is both sad and scary. Everyone else would prefer it very much if China made themselves more trustworthy so they could go at it with us instead of going it alone.
Another thing that the news media might not mention is that China has invested heavily in this push for space expansion, even though their economy is struggling. We should find that both disconcerting and embarrassing.
In the cancelled science fiction T.V. series Firefly (and the movie Serenity on which it is based), a Chinese corporation manages to gain and hold the advantage in space. What follows is a very Chinese-looking space culture, space economic structure, and space government. Yes I said government…or rather a negatively evolved version of the same un-trustworthy entity that I mentioned earlier. In the story, some people try to resist the trend, lose a war, and become outcasts. They then go about breaking the law in an ongoing variety of quests to do the right thing. Is this where we are headed? I have spoken here several times about the new space race, but the various commercial space players struggling to compete on that front have another rival…China. Should these companies be forced to go it alone against both the U.S. Government with their pet Old Space contractors (who have failed to maintain our momentum in space), and the Chinese? Or should our government…namely Congress and potentially Mitt Romney (should he win the Presidency) wake up and smell the rocket fuel and stop dragging their heals on this new endeavour? We are in the midst of a losing struggle for the future economic, systemic, and cultural success and identity of this nation and world and it is time for us to take seriously the road that is placed before us.
Space is not a wasteland…it is a frontier.
Space exploration is not a waste..it is an opportunity.
Commercial space funding is not an expense…it is an investment.
Rocket building should not be a collection of local jobs programs…it should be a national industry.
Human spaceflight is not a luxury…it is humanity’s new manifest destiny.
The fastest road to space right now is CCDev. The Chinese have already told SpaceX, the up and coming leader in the Commercial Space Race, that they cannot compete with their prices. If the SpaceX pricing model is to propagate throughput the system, it will give us a chance to redeem ourselves for decades of neglect in which we have spent billions of dollars maintaining a very expensive single path to orbit system at the expense of a new, broad-based space infrastructure. It is not an issue of lost jobs for certain Old Space companies, it is an issue of dimes to dollars both for NASA and various current and future launch services customers the world over. To achieve it requires a variety of players competing on an equal footing in knowledge base and infrastructure. The COTs and CCDev programs have been designed to do just that.
Like in any race, the leaders who are showing their age have become a target for competition. Congress has been surprisingly quiet on the issue of CCDev in recent weeks (gee…I wonder why. 😉 . Our government needs to loudly recognise the value of New Space to the future of this and nation begin to support and encourage COTs and CCdev. Instead, Congress still quietly wants to deliver it the death of a thousand cuts.
It’s time for the leader to take a glance behind and see the biggest rival sprinting to catch up. Give a penny to NASA and let them spend it on planetary science and New Space.
Do it now.
Either that or learn to cuss in Chinese like they do on Firefly.
- Chinese astronauts blast off on historic mission (cbc.ca)
- Chinese spacecraft en route to orbiting module (kansascity.com)
- Making History: Part 1 – Off the Ground (bhousley.wordpress.com)
- China sends first female astronaut into space aboard Shenzhou-9 spacecraft (theverge.com)
- Lady’s first (economist.com)
- China Set for Historic Space Hookup (news.discovery.com)
- China’s first manned space docking successful (wantchinatimes.com)