At first glance it’s easy to dismiss China’s efforts as being little more than what the US and Russia achieved decades ago. And while the pace of China’s manned launches has been slow with over a year in many cases between launches; looks can be deceptive and China has achieved each critical step towards building a permanent space station within the next few years. Meanwhile, its overall space program builds out each critical element to support regular manned space operations.
At the same time, the US continues to pursue its own mix of military, science and civil space operations. Compared to every other national space program the US leads by such a distance it’s hard to imagine its achievements being eclipsed anytime soon.
Among the so called space community there are several groupings. Some are traditional in outlook and view the space program in purely military and or scientific terms. And while there is obviously a healthy commercial space industry – the focus here has been entirely on Earth orbit platforms such as communications and earth observation satellites.
As is well known, another group has emerged over the past 20 years and is often described as New Space. With an initial focus on space tourism, this has expanded to asteroid mining and the colonization of Mars.
Having closely followed these developments the one clear conclusion is how little has actually occurred with these dreams. Despite the regular round of space conferences and the like, the same dreams are repeated over and over. And the years keep on passing by with little to show for their efforts.
Despite a flurry of space tourist flights to the ISS, no private paying passenger has ridden a Soyuz to the ISS since 2009. Virgin Galactic remains Earth bound, while nearly every other company selling space tourist dreams has folded. The only near term contender is WorldView, which plans to launch balloons to the upper stratosphere that will enable long duration flights to an altitude where the illusion of being in space is about as real as you can get without actually flying a 100km ballistic mission profile.
SpaceX is often portrayed as the great game changer. And, like Blue Origin, both companies have embraced new computer based design methodologies that have significantly sped up rocket engine development while also reducing costs. But Blue Origin has yet to launch a single payload into space, and SpaceX is wholly dependent on traditional customers such as NASA and the large commercial satellite communication operators.
SpaceX’s recent announcement of a cis-lunar mission faces no significant obstacles and may achieve its goal of launching two paying customers by 2018 – but there is no shortage of industry observers who seriously doubt that this timeframe is realistic and expect the launch date to slip to 2019/2020 and even longer.
For now, the real action will remain with the government space programs of the US, Russia, the EU, China and India.
Given NASA’s recent history of attempting to develop a new heavy lift launcher only to abandon yet another program after spending billions, it’s been easy to dismiss the Space Launch System as just another make work program for Alabama.
Frequently derided as the Senate Launch System, in honor of its government backers in the US Senate, there is far more to this than many realize.
That the SLS is so strongly backed by the US Senate, should point to what the real objective of the SLS program actually is.
The stated reason has been to travel and land on a passing asteroid and achieve a significant “space first” that would obviously play well for national prestige. And while this may be one of its mission objectives, the obvious similarities to the Saturn 5 launcher should make it clear why the Senate has so readily backed the SLS program. Namely as a ready-to-go launcher for an Apollo Redux should China show any intention or, more importantly, near-term capability of sending humans back to the Moon.
Despite the dreams and aspirations of so many across New Space national prestige is what drives the civil space programs today as much as it has done for the past 60+ years.
China would be delighted to be the second nation to make it to the moon in what would be an entirely new achievement that would signal to the world that China was the new Superpower to respect and aspire to.
The US Senate has, in my opinion, long understood the realpolitik of this and for this reason demanded that NASA develop the SLS program as an undeclared back up plan that could be readily sped up when China begins to make its play for a manned mission to the lunar surface.
Within the framework of global superpower politics – the US cannot allow China to land humans on the Moon before the US returns.
For China to be landing people on the Moon while the US can’t even launch its own astronauts to the ISS, would be a global projection of power that would be immensely damaging to US prestige and power.
It would appear that this intersection of superpower politics has been communicated to President Trump and the undeclared race back to the Moon is fast becoming a reality.
Elon Musk has sought to deal SpaceX into the game with the CIS-Lunar mission. China has now responded with a flurry of well placed stories in its domestic media about its own manned Lunar program. And all of sudden everyone is talking about sending humans back to the moon.
In response, the Mars or Bust crowd has begun complaining that this is all a distraction that will make the “Journey to Mars” an even more distant prospect than what it is now. And that only private enterprise can make us a space faring species.
The reality though is that the space tourism industry has achieved next to nothing of what it has promised over the past 15 years. The asteroid miners are just paper projects that fill in slots for the conference circuit and are decades away from recovering any minerals from an asteroid for commercial purposes.
Comparisons to the age of discovery of the 16th and 17th centuries are usually best taken with a grain of salt given the sailing ships of those times had a functioning biosphere readily at hand and actual gravity to support them, along with complete radiation protection and an endless supply of cheap labor and food.
However, there is one aspect that can be reasonably compared – and that is time. It took decades and in some cases centuries for the full potential of the new world to be exploited in any significant way. Moreover, spaceflight and terrestrial flight are not the same. They are separated by many orders of magnitude in cost and energy. It is therefore entirely unsurprising that we are only where we are now with space exploration and development. Logically, this will change over the coming decades, but it will take far longer than most are prepared to accept.
In the meantime, the Second Moon Race has begun, and will be readily embraced by NASA and its private industry contractors, be they legacy or new space.