October 15, 2003,
This week's manned space flight in China has revived a lot of misplaced nostalgia for the Cold War and the space race among some space enthusiasts.
They hope that watching the Chinese put a man into orbit in a capsule on an expendable rocket (something that the Americans and the Soviets first did over four decades ago) will somehow rouse the American people from their seeming lethargy on space and space policy. Once again, the president will make a stirring speech about our destiny in the cosmos, and Congress will cry "Huzzah" and open up the money spigots for NASA. The nation will once again be rapt with attention, and learn the names of the astronauts, and their favorite meals, and their pets, and we'll pick up that dropped ball from three decades ago, when man last walked on the moon.
Don't count on it.
Not only is it unlikely to occur, but if it did, it would almost certainly lead to another dead-end, as Apollo did, perhaps setting us back once again over the long term, because we would be doing it for the wrong reasons.
I've written before about mistaken analogies with the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and comparisons of that era with America post-Apollo. Programs of exploration undertaken only for reasons of national prestige and competition will always eventually come to tears, because they're not sustainable. The two traditional motivating factors behind human endeavors have been fear and greed. Unfortunately, actions based only on fear aren't sustainable, because the national adrenalin eventually runs dry, and, whether in individuals or nations, the "fight or flight" response ultimately takes its costly toll.
A space race with another nation, simply for the sake of racing, is a program based on fear. Apollo was such a program we sent people to our sister orb because Lyndon Johnson vowed not to go to bed "by the light of a communist moon." A new space race with China would seem to have no better rationale, and I suspect that most Americans (and their political leadership) will recognize this.
Veteran space analyst and Russian space expert Jim Oberg has applied his analytical skills and experience to the Chinese program. Some people think that the Chinese plans are ambitious, but I see them as trivial, and they don't reveal any threat, imminent or otherwise, of our being leapfrogged.
China has launched five Shenzhou vehicles in a period of four years, which is not an impressive launch rate. But each one was meticulously handcrafted with improvements based on previous flight experience. Now that the design has been validated and standardized, the same level of expenditure will probably be able to manufacture and launch at least twice as many vehicles in the same time period.
This is not to say, of course, that we should be totally complacent about Chinese space activities. While it doesn't justify a surge in NASA budgets, it should cause concern from a military standpoint.
We've seen recently how valuable, even critical our space assets are to our military capability. In the middle of a war on a new form of fascism in the Middle East, of uncertain length and a cloudy trajectory, we cannot risk the loss of the satellites that not only save many of our soldiers' lives, but those of innocent noncombatants as well.
The Chinese were also no doubt watching, with the rest of the world, the precision devastation that we wreaked on first the Taliban, and then, even more precisely, on Saddam's regime, often destroying individual tanks while leaving civilian vehicles parked right next to them unscathed. They know that our power to do that comes from orbit, and that if they can come up with systems that can negate that advantage by blinding our eyes in the sky, and silencing our guidance signals, our military ability will be crippled, and back on more of a parity with other powers, including themselves.
If they can do so, then there will indeed be a danger, but it's not at all obvious that their present manned space program puts them on a path to that goal, any more than it puts them on a path to the Moon, in any timely or affordable fashion.
I actually take comfort from the Chinese program.
During WW II, Wehrner von Braun had been criticized for aiding the Nazi war effort by developing the V-2 missile, but it could actually be argued that, in his secret zeal to conquer the cosmos, he aided the ally war effort (either deliberately or inadvertently) by diverting scarce German resources from much more useful development efforts (e.g., a long-range bomber that might have been able to hit the eastern seaboard of the U.S.) to a weapon that, while terrifying to the immediate victims, was relatively ineffective, militarily.
Similarly, as during the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese government is wasting valuable state resources on a circus that may, in the short run, provide some small bit of national pride to a government that is stealing those same resources from a people to whom it's unaccountable, but will not significantly contribute to the wealth of their nation. Ultimately, the only way to do that is to harness free enterprise to the task.
Fortunately, I believe that the current Chinese government is incapable of doing that without releasing its stranglehold on power. When I see them harnessing the other traditional motivator greed and emulating entrepreneurial approaches, like this, or this, then I'll be concerned. But as long as they continue to take their cue from other failed government programs, we have little to fear from the red menace.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism, and Internet security. He writes about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.