The commanding heights

America may have ditched its space shuttle; China retains its lunar plans

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29 Jul 2011
Week in China

"We are first; we are the best; and we are so because we're free" was Ronald Reagan's confident take on the prospects for the International Space Station programme, when he first announced it in 1984.

Fast-forward to 2011 and that pioneering spirit seems to burn less brightly, following the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis in mid-July. With the shuttle now in mothballs, NASA will be relying on others for its space station visits. And that means hitching lifts with the Russians, at fares approaching $56 million a trip.

Despite this indignity, it is China rather than Russia that has been getting most mention on the shuttle's shutdown. Some decry NASA's decision as a collapse in exploratory spirit rivalled only by the Ming dynasty, which turned inwards after Zheng He's legendary naval voyages 600 years ago. Others prefer to look to the future for meaning. Prepare for a Chinese spacecraft settling down on the moon's surface, science fiction writer Bruce Sterling warned in a magazine article back in 2003. Out climb the taikonauts, who pull out the Stars and Stripes planted by Aldrin and Armstrong, and replace it with a national flag of their own.

While the talk is of the Americans retreating from final frontiers, China's own lunar programme is presented as fully funded and fully focused. Beijing will launch a space lab of its own this year and then send two manned flights to visit it the year after. A lunar rover will get its first spin by 2013, followed by a mission to retrieve moon matter. After that there will be a lunar landing from the taikonauts themselves, currently planned for 2025.

The subtext, currently fashionable, is one of Chinese ascent as America declines. This can go too far. NASA has dropped the space shuttle but it has not suspended space investment across the board. Indeed, there is a view that, at $1.5 billion a launch, space shuttle resources are better allocated elsewhere. Moving people and equipment in orbit is a "humdrum task", agrees
The Economist, especially if NASA is to focus on more distant goals, like a mission to Mars by the 2030s.

That seems to mirror the policy of the US retreat from low-tech industries in favour of a redoubling of efforts in higher value ones. Simply put, the Americans have chosen to outsource manned space travel.

And how about the timeline on this latest phase of lunar one-upmanship? Certainly, a Chinese moon landing would be cause for great national celebration, and a huge coup for the Party leadership. But even today, best case for Beijing is a man on the moon in about 15 years' time, or almost seven decades after Apollo 11 touched down (this presupposes events go to plan: news from the high-speed rail sector, see Talking Point, means this is not a given).

The more nations that get into space, the better cooperation we'll have with each other.

That misses the point on the spin-offs associated with aerospace spending, argue the lunar boosters. The original space race with the Russians brought a host of wider gains, in anything from satellite technology to Velcro, they say (not quite accurate: Velcro came courtesy of a Swiss engineer pulling thistles out of his dog; NASA's role was to glam things up by stitching it into their space suits).

There is also the linkage to the defence sector, likely to be more prominent in China's case because of the less visible separation between civilian and military programmes. The People's Liberation Army – in charge of all aspects of manned and unmanned space activity – caused a stir in 2007 by obliterating an old weather satellite with a missile. The shooting down was the first known intercept in two decades, and earned a sharp rebuke from the United States.

Nor are the Chinese necessarily condemned to their trailing role of the past, a view supported by news from another scientific frontier last week. This time it was from deep sea rather than deep space: the Jiaolong submersible descended to its deepest point yet, more than 5,000 metres into the Pacific, off Hawaii. That takes it beyond the range of the Alvin, the only active US equivalent.

Rather than an arms race, this deep-sea drive is more a quest for resources, with governments keen to secure claims on mineral reserves beneath the ocean floor. It was also a factor in the Jiaolong's sinking of a Chinese flag into the seabed last year in the South China Sea, where there are hopes of finding huge reserves of natural gas.

Japanese scientists were similarly excited last month, claiming to have found a small patch of ocean floor hiding the equivalent of a fifth of current rare earths demand.

Yet, for all the bluster on currency and trade practices, Sino-US relations don't come close to the enmity of the Cold War space race – the "touch-football version of World War III" in the words of author Sterling.

Xinhua, the state news agency, has been keen to make the point too, stressing that China is just playing catch-up in technology terms, and seeks only to explore space, not lay claim to it.

Washington has also been talking up collaboration with Beijing. Reuters reports that NASA has shared warnings on at least 150 potential orbital collisions with the Chinese, many from debris created by the shooting down of the weather satellite in 2007.

'Made in China' problems even reach into outer space, it seems...

And even newly retired US astronauts can find a positive spin for events.

"China being in space, I think, is a great thing. The more nations that get into space, the better cooperation we'll have with each," Rex Walheim, who flew on the final space shuttle mission, told Reuters this month. "Space is one of the biggest international brotherhoods we have," he said.

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