Friday, 17 October 2003

Lunar Colonisation

I've been considering the Chinese Space Programme, and the more I look at it, the more I think the Devil is in the details.

There's been a lot of pooh-poohing of the latest Chinese space exploit. As well as a lively debate (and a real stinker of a pun) on what it all means:
For the Chinese it's a very historic event, said Marcia Smith, a policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C. "It demonstrates that they have the technological ability to put humans into space. Where it all leads, I think it's still up in the air," Smith said.
Ouch! Well I warned you about the pun. To continue:
The Chinese have discussed plans for their human spaceflight program, Smith said, that includes building space stations and maybe, some day, even sending people to the Moon. "Those are very expensive endeavors and time will tell whether or not they consider that to be a worthwhile investment."
I think Matt Bille is closer, but still not quite on-target:
"It has been 42 years since the last time a nation put its first human into space," said Matt Bille, a space historian and analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"The Chinese have clearly done this very methodically, developing their technology step by step and testing the spacecraft four times before now," Bille noted. "I suspect we are going to see a logical program of building up their capability in low Earth orbit to do long-term stays and focus on earth science, industrial applications, and other capabilities that have some payoff for their economy as well as national pride," he said.
Yes, they've been methodical. This is not some flash-in-the-pan Space Spectacular for no more worthy a goal than National prestige. It's not a Space Race as such - because a Race implies that they're competing against some other entity. No, after consulting my Crystal Ball, taking the auguries, and examining the entrails of a goat, I think they're in it for the long term. I'm not talking about Scientific missions to Mars, or even Exploratory missions to the Moon. I'm talking about setting up a permanent presence. Not next year. Not next decade, nor the one after that. But certainly within the next 50 years. I think that they have a plan. A flexible one, that will adapt to changing circumstances and unforeseeable problems, but a plan nonetheless.
There was no funding for lunar projects in the ten-year space plan approved in 2001. By July 2001 a Chinese aerospace magazine indicated that Chinese scientists had drafted a much more modest four-phase long term plan.
Phase 1, by 2005: Lunar flyby or orbiting satellite missions, perhaps using the DFH-3 bus.
Phase 2, by 2010: unmanned soft-landing missions.
Phase 3, by 2020: Robotic exploration using surface rovers.
Phase 4, by 2030: Lunar sample return missions.
Only after 2030 would manned flights and construction of a lunar base begin.

The Shenzhou manned spacecraft provides the Chinese with the required hardware to pursue a lunar program whenever they make the decision to go.
It would surprise me if the schedule didn't slip. But no matter, there's no hurry. The last sentence in the quote above is important, and it's one of the details I mentioned intially.

Unlike the primitive Mercury "capsule" that Alan Shepard and John Glenn went up in, or the bigger but even more primitive Vostok that Yuri Gargarin orbitted in, the Shenzhou design is almost certainly the most advanced manned spacecraft ever flown.
Remember, the ambitious and hi-tech Shuttle is a 1970s design with some 1980's electronics. The latest Soyuz spacecraft is still only incrementally improved on a 1970s design. And the Apollo - hasn't changed since the mid 70's. We're talking very primitive electronics indeed.

The Shenzhou is obviously similar in many ways to the latest Soyuz (Soyuz TMA). But the differences are quite large when examined in detail. Firstly, it's a whole heap bigger. 13% bigger.
The spacecraft strongly resembled the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and like the Soyuz, consisted of a forward orbital module, a re-entry capsule, and an aft service module. The configuration was very much like the original Soyuz A design of 1962 (itself, in turn, alleged to be very similar to the US General Electric Apollo proposal of the same period). Orientation instruments, evidently consisting of horizon, ion flow and/or stellar/sun sensors, were located at the middle bottom of the service module, as on the Soyuz spacecraft. Two pairs of solar panels on the service and orbital modules had a total area of 36 square metres, indicating average electrical power of over 1.3 kW (nearly three times that of Soyuz and about that of the original Mir base module). Unlike the Soyuz, the orbital module was equipped with its own propulsion, solar power, and control systems, allowing autonomous flight. In the future the orbital modules could also be left behind on the 921-2 space station as additional station modules. A stretched version of the orbital modules was also evidently under consideration as a space station element. The basic spacecraft was capable of manned missions of up to 20 days, with autonomous missions of the orbital module of up to a year.
-Encyclopedia Astronautica

Consider this plan, formulated in the US in the early 90s, using "off the shelf" Apollo hardware to make a relatively swift and cheap return to the Moon. Shenzhou could be even more suitable - not as swift, but even cheaper.

Along the way, the Chinese will have to build a space station, practice Earth Rendezvous, send up and construct a Lunar mission out of a number of smaller payloads, and develop a "kicker" booster to take the whole thing to the Moon. Something along the lines of the US Centaur E. They'll also have to develop landers, firstly robot ones, and supply vessels. Probably some lunar orbitting satellites for pinpoint navigation and communications.

But they then get to do a bit of colonising of their own.

This is not going to be all that expensive, providing the long-term view is taken, and there's no radical urgency to be short-term penny-wise and long-term pound-foolish, or gain a few weeks on the schedule by drowning problems in a sea of dollars. And, as a "spin-off", China gets prestige, more hard currency from launching commercial satellites, a significant military recon capability, independence from relying on GPS, and who knows, maybe money from space tourism. Technologies that they'll develop along the way may well spur Chinese industrial capabilities too, as they did in the US and USSR.

My Crystal Ball says that the Chinese remember Zheng He, () and won't make that particular mistake again.

I could easily be wrong, but I calls 'em how I sees 'em.


I got a good chuckle out of your calling my post about China's First Human
Spaceflight "pooh-poohing." I believe that is the first time in my life I
have ever been accused of pooh-poohing something. While I would personally
call my attitude towards the event ambivalence, you definitely wrote about
an aspect of the story that I missed: What the future plans of the Chinese
are (or could be) in space.

I always enjoy reading your writing. Keep up the good work.

::Mark Oakley

No comments: