Who cares if the US abandons human space flight?

The impasse over the future of the International Space Station has some worried about the future of “international spaceflight”. Space analyst Morris Jones sums up the worst case scenario, in which the US-Russia troubles and the US-China suspicions create enough trouble to “cause much of the overall structure of astronautics to collapse.”

Since Russia announced it would pull out of the International Space Station in 2020, no other nation has given a clear signal about their future policy. But the role of the ISS means that if it goes, the plans around NASA’s Commercial Crew transport program could also be scrapped, meaning that plans for a private-sector spacecraft bite the dust too.

Then it becomes a very chicken-and-the-egg proposition. “Why build crew transfer vehicles for a space station that’s about to be scuttled?”

Dr Jones puts a timeline on the impasse, writing “If we do not see any real progress before the end of the year, some of [the] hypotheticals [about cancelled programs] will change from being possible to probable.”

It is a moment when the world is looking to the US for space leadership. I sense that behind the US silence is the same debate that is affecting the wider society and economy: who has power? Elon Musk’s SpaceX has challenged the duopoly United Launch Alliance has in sending US military satellites into space. The US military-industrial complex is nothing if not a cozy little arrangement. Its major players are not going become truly competitive without a fight first. Of course a duolopy will want to exclude a new entrant. But this same tussle over what is fair in business and the economy is happening in many sectors of the US. For example, it’s happening in the internet with the net neutrality issue, in which the entertainment companies want to carve out a fast-lane for their own content, essentially undermining what makes the internet a place for real competition. And fight back from consumer activists is pretty ferocious.

This would seem to be far from the battle for space prestige. But these struggles are everything in America these days.

The question in all of this is whether there can by a galvanizing force to kickstart the US space program back into action. If Russia telling the US to suck eggs on the ISS and China building their own isn’t enough of a catalyst, it’s not clear what would be.

NASA itself has surveyed stakeholders on their opinion of space flight for National Research Council’s report Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration. The survey of 1100 stakeholders drawn from scientific, educational, engineering, security and media backgrounds found:

that “U.S. prestige”—a concept linked to national pride and identity—would be the greatest loss if human
spaceflight activities in Low Earth Orbit and beyond Low Earth Orbit were terminated. Such a loss could be greatest for future generations.

The exact breakdown follows in a chart called:
What Would Be Lost If NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program Would Be Terminated (Open
Ended, All Mentions):


The report elaborates on the nature of national prestige, as well.

As difficult as it is to characterize other benefits of human spaceflight, the cultural “value” of human spaceflight and the role it plays in national pride and identity is even more difficult to assess. National identity has been defined as “the cohesive force that holds nation states together and shapes their relationships with the family of nations.” National pride is “the positive effect that the public feels toward their country as a result of their national identity….it is both the pride or sense of esteem that a person has for one’s nation and the pride or self-esteem that a person drives from one’s national identity.” Collective experience is represented in and reinforced by national pride and can be reflected through symbols of national experience or achievement, with which national pride is strongly correlated.

Given the worsening geopolitical situation for the US, and the fact that strength through superior technology would support the country’s security as well as economy, the silence over the future of the ISS and space in general seems strange. For those who point back to the urgency of the US space program during the Cold War, the question today is how do you achieve that kind of focus and urgency in a time of a globalized, networked population that has been told for decades that globalization is not only benign but preferred and anything that smacks of nationalism is damaging? And how do you motivate politicians and the public to support the US space program when job growth remains weak, earnings have struggled and the prospect of achieving the American Dream appears to be receding for many. A major theme may be that while in the 1950s the US was clearly in competition with the Soviet Union, today it is unclearly in competition with China. That is, the US is competing with China. But the contest appears marginal to most Americans.

Elites (politicians, policy people, strategists) in the US realize this – but until there is pressure from the public for action on the space program, which could well look like an extravagance to many Americans, the US response may be missing for sometime. In that time, the overall capacity for humanity to travel into space may decline.

China outsources cyberspies

Non-state actors are a feature of all cyberspying. But in China, the use of non-state actors matches its historical method of espionage in China.

Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst James Lewis writing for the Lowy Institute:

China’s cyber espionage strategy combines both official programs and the coordination of unruly efforts of thousands of individuals, companies, and civil agencies as intelligence collectors. This broad, diffuse, cyber espionage collection program reflects the traditional Chinese approach to intelligence collection – instead of relying on officers operating under official cover, China’s approach has been described as “a thousand grains of sand,” where businessmen, researchers or students are asked to collect information when they visit a country

This accounts, too, for the profusion of Chinese nationals of a non-intelligence background living abroad who are expected to provide useful information to Beijing.

Online, however, it means there is less control over cybertheft from the top. China cyber-espionage includes official programs plus “independent actions by agencies and companies not directed by the central government” as well as individual criminal activities sometimes working for a larger organization.

As Lewis writes:

The central leadership in Beijing does not control all of these actors and it is not clear that it could control them if it wished to do so, despite strenuous efforts to keep internet freedom in check.

This was seen in the news surrounding the US indictments of the five China military officers for spying.

From the New York Times:

Some military and government employees moonlight as mercenaries and do more hacking on their own time, selling their skills to state-owned and private companies. Some belong to the same online social networking groups.

“There are many types of relationships,” said Adam Segal, a China and cybersecurity scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Some P.L.A. hackers offer their services under contract to state-owned enterprises. For some critical technologies, it is possible that P.L.A. hackers are tasked with attacks on specific foreign companies.”…

A hacker who jumps among wildly divergent victims, he said, is likely to be a contractor. In recent months, FireEye observed a hacker who took aim at foreign defense and aerospace companies, then hacked an online entertainment company. It appeared the hacker was a private contractor.

It’s something to keep in mind in discussions of US-China cyber competition. Without a doubt non-state actors are big in hacking in the US – but it’s not likely they form an integral part of official US cyberwar capabilities. The role of the Chinese cyberattackers suggests there are plenty of side deals between various parts of Chinese government and lone individuals undergirding China’s efforts. That means, Beijing probably couldn’t stop the cybertheft if it wanted to.

How bad could things get in South China Sea? Check the price of iron ore

One answer to that question can be found in strength of China’s slowing economy. And one of the best barometers of the slowdown is not the country’s “man-made” GDP figures but rather the price of iron ore, which is an essential ingredient to China’s industrial sectors. And the price of iron ore has been sinking. As Mining.com explains:

Iron ore fell below $90/a ton for only the second time since the financial crisis. The price of iron ore is down 33.7 per cent year-to-date.
On a quarterly basis iron ore hasn’t averaged less than $100 since the height of the global financial crisis, but is now in danger of doing so – the quarterly average now stands at $104.60.
China is responsible for two-thirds of the 1.2 billion tonne seaborne trade and the declines in the price of the steelmaking raw material has been blamed on continued signs of a slowdown in the world’s second largest economy.

Recall that a slowdown in China risks more social disorder, raising the need for a galvanizing force from outside. So as sure as growth slows at home and the government continues on anti-corruption purge that will further dent spending, the PLA cranks things up in the Pacific.

Of course, iron ore is not a fail safe barometer of China’s economic pace. In fact, iron ore in China has also been used as collateral for off-the-books financing, as is copper. The practices from a country as large as China wreak havoc on traditional forecasting for the commodity’s price and demand outlook.

As mining.com notes:

Another complicating factor in the iron ore market is Beijing’s clampdown on unofficial financing activities happening outside state-owned banks, the so-called shadow banking system. The use of commodities – particularly copper and iron – as collateral in trade financing agreements makes up a large portion of the unofficial banking sector.

…Estimates vary wildly but the portion of iron ore and copper stockpiles at the country’s ports tied up in these deals could be as high as 60%.

Which means that the vast amounts of commodities sold to China may not go directly into industrial uses or construction but sit in docks and depots.

What this means is that the pace of China’s economy could actually be much lower than the official 7.7 per cent. Surely, behind the official numbers is uneven growth depending on the sector. And in that climate where employment may soften and hopes of sharing in China’s wealth fade for many of its workers, the need for external enemies rises. So keep an eye on the price of iron ore to see how soft things are getting at home for China to understand how hard their military (and other authorities) may be with neighbors.

The key index to look at is Tianjin Iron Ore 62% fines index.

Lawfare in the South China Sea

It’s interesting that China has sent its own documents supporting its claim on the waters off the coast of Vietnam to the UN. On the surface, this would slow any judgement to be made at a UN-linked organization over China’s activities in the South China Sea.

But the idea of standing up competing claims in an international tribunal which could produce a binding result is a clear victory for the West, even if a court rules in favor of China. That’s because it relies on the rule by law rather than deference to a power, which seems to be the Chinese preference.

Alternatively, the use of courts by claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines can be see as a slow construction of a case against China. That could be a useful precedent in the future as the world potentially struggles to accommodate the kind of claim China desires.