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.