NASA broke but China’s plans for moon orbit may be advancing

‘That’s embarrassing,’ a colleague commented on the news that NASA doesn’t have the scratch to get its Space Launch System to its first flight scheduled for December 2017. The Space Launch System is the massive rocket (bigger than the Saturn 5 type used in the moon missions) which is supposed to carry humans to asteroids and then to Mars.

Key line from Associated Press:

NASA’s launch system officials told the (Government Accountability Office) that there was a 90 percent chance of not hitting the launch date at this time.

This assessment, coming on the back of Russia’s recent announcement that it would exit the International Space Station by 2020 would deal a double-blow to the US. Particularly as China marches ahead with its multiple space programs.

After sending two spacecraft to orbit the moon and landing its Yutu moon rover – which wasn’t a complete success – but a success nonetheless, China will launch its first round-trip robotic lunar mission later this year.

Space analyst Dr Morris Jones writes that China could itself be laying the ground work for a manned-moon mission.

China could be practicing for a mission to launch an astronaut to the Moon and back. The astronaut would also fly a “free-return trajectory” around the far side of the Moon, and would not land there. If China carries out such a mission, it would send a Chinese astronaut further into space than any previous mission. Assuming that it happens before a private circumlunar mission is launched by a US-Russian space partnership, it would also mark the first return of any human to the Moon in more than four decades.

Dr Jones then goes on to detail the technical aspects as well as the rationale for such a project. Given that China is secretive about its space program, as it is about military technology, there is a good amount of guesswork. But the arrows point to such a launch eventually, he says.

China is clearly doing the groundwork for a future Chinese circumlunar astronaut mission. We don’t know when it could happen, but it is realistic to assume that China could carry out such a flight within a decade. Never mind the lack of an official plan. We don’t know if this has been planned for years, or if the relatively new Chinese leader Xi Jinping ordered the mission in recent times. Whatever the case, we should remain alert for this upcoming mission. China’s lunar plans are more ambitious than the world at large knows.

Any bilateral competition reflects the nature of the competitors. China is seems focused on contactless competition with the US – that is, it prefers to demonstrate its power to the world directly without direct confrontation or conflict with the US. What better sends the signal of China’s economic and technical rise, than a serious moon program? Particularly as NASA, and the world wonders why, 45 years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, there has been so little capital or will for the US to return.

Another big question: in any looming US-China competition, will space matter the way it did in the Cold War? Since we have no other history to draw on than the Cold War itself, we can’t help but answer the question in the affirmative.

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):

tabble

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.

International Space Station: Now what, NASA?

There is a defensive ring to the NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s claim that Russia’s decision to pull out of the ISS won’t have an impact of the success of the station.

Bolden said no one country, including Russia, is “indispensible” in keeping the ISS in use. Yet, undoubtedly there are some hard questions being asked in Washington and Houston about the future of the ISS.

As space analyst Dr Morris Jones points out, this is a crucial period for the future of global space programs

This period when NASA is weak in vehicle infrastructure is the most strategic window to launch a blow to NASA’s space program. Russia would certainly understand this. NASA needs some crisis planning right now. It’s almost certain that there’s a lot more talk happening behind closed doors than we know.

The biggest risk is that the US, in a pinch, will choose to put resources into maintaining the status-quo with the ISS. NASA will be tempted to do this so it’s not embarrassed when and if China has its space station Tiangong-3 or Heavenly Palace aloft, scheduled for 2023. That would follow NASA’s current embarrassment of no longer being able to launch its own astronauts into space – a problem to persist until 2017 at the earliest.

But if NASA focuses too many resources on maintaining the status quo of the ISS, it will likely delay a serious stab at putting astronauts on Mars.

As the dynamics of space competition reshape along the lines of new geopolitical rivalries, the US will need to think long and hard about how it can show leadership in space. The clearest way is a manned mission to mars. This is not a new idea. My 1980 World Book Encyclopaedia set includes a detailed graphic on what a mission to Mars would look like. NASA engineers and planners fully expected to head to Mars after the successful Apollo program to the moon.

But NASA’s interplanetary budget became a victim of the budget issues of the 1970s, when a recession and the gas crisis were in full swing. Not only was the budget cut but the momentum slowed and the nation’s attention began to drift from space programs.

It will be interesting to see if the pressure NASA is coming under from the Russians and Chinese produces the will to push on to the next planet. Recall that the catalyst for the Russian to announce the ISS pull-out began with a move in the US to break the monopoly Boeing and Lockheed Martin have on military satellite launches. Any credible disruptor force to the cozy space industry in the US could unleash the kind of competition that benefits the overall program. But the main thing is for the US space program not to focus on the short-term need at the expense of the long-term strategy.

Dogma in Space, or why did the US scuttle the shuttle now?

One of the best examples of the folly of freemarket fundamentalism in the US is what has happened to the US space program. More specifically, what has happened to NASA’s ability to put satellites in space. With no disrespect to SpaceX, the Ideology demanded that the US government, arguably the most successful outfit in space, exit the regular payload delivery business, because, well, private enterprise could do it better. Why? Because Ideology said so. Now, we have Elon Musk’s SpaceX, winning a contract to put two US military satellites in orbit. In the freemarket world, this is a triumph. Finally, we have gotten big government out of space. Not everyone saw the wisdom, particularly the pioneers of America’s space program like John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. They found it baffling that the US should cede its capabilities. According to Armstrong the space race was “an exceptional national investment for both sides.” Space programs are complex. The idea of adding another layer of complication, through a bidding process and a vetting around security and technology seem unwise. Particularly at a time when the US should be looking skyward as the technological competition heats up with China. Why does this kind of competition matter to the US, where poverty is on the rise and infrastructure is in need of repair? Because space programs build technological know how, they create demand for better teachers, and for faster computers. The US is not going to find another avenue of sustainable growth without technological advancement. Space vehicles also embody what Ivy League anarchist Dave Graeber called the poetic technology….That was something very much part of the calculus of us kids of the Cold War. You took pride in your nation’s air- and space-craft. Some, like star man Neil Degrasse Tyson would argue that US needs a space race with China with the goal of colonizing Mars. Why such competition? Listen to the words of Neil Armstrong describing the value of the Space Race during the Cold War. Competition, tension, even, but a completely desirable outcome instead of conflict.