Thursday, 13 April 2006

The Chinese Space Programme as at 2006

First though, let's look at the US lack of programme :
Another space news website has published a leaked NASA study called "LRA-0" which is spreading despair and gloom through the space community. Many people are surprised that the architecture for returning men to the Moon laid out in the famous ESAS report is declared to be totally unworkable in this new document.

But no one should be surprised. I pointed this out four months ago, and anyone who has followed the announced and rumored changes to the ESAS plan since its appearance could see that it was in serious trouble.

The 723-page ESAS report went to elaborate lengths to justify its particular choices of spacecraft, boosters, engines, and fuels. Many of these justifications were obviously phony. (My favorite was a long table of expensive modifications that would supposedly be needed to "man-rate" the Delta-4H or Atlas-5H.)

It was clear to many astute observers that the ESAS program was a political one. It was designed to mollify Congress by keeping almost every worker in the dying Space Shuttle program in his present job, performing the same task in the same factory in the same politician's district.

Little attention was given to financial or technical feasibility. Cost and schedule estimates by Shuttle contractors were accepted without any attempt to check them (even though those contractor estimates have proven wildly optimistic in the past).

The basic problem is lack of vision, of long-range planning. The US Space programme is more about allocating Pork from the Pork Barrel than doing anything constructive. Oh yes, the Scientific areas do very good work on an ever-shortening shoestring, but there's no vision of what should be done in the long term. As soon as the Administration changes, so does the world. Short-term fixes, compromises and re-use of existing systems whether appropriate or not are the norm. They're racing, not another super-power, but the next Congressional budget that might dismantle the project altogether.

Compare and Contrast:
From Space.Com :
In the human spaceflight arena, China has also made stunning achievements, Luo explained. In 1999-2002, four unpiloted spaceships were launched by China, followed in October 2003 by its first piloted mission, Shenzhou 5. “That was a historic breakthrough for China,” he added.

“We have become the third country capable of developing a spaceship by itself and launching our own astronauts into orbit and safely recover them,” Luo said. In October 2005 a two-person spacecraft rocketed into Earth orbit, achieving the first “attended space lab tests,” he said.

Luo said that, based on success in the manned mission area, they intend to establish an orbiting space lab by 2015. Leading up to this effort, he added, space walking skills by Chinese astronauts are to be honed, as will be the ability of space docking.

In the area of human spaceflight, Luo noted several times that China is open to the possibility for international cooperation.

China has drafted a multi-step program for lunar exploration.

Next year, the country’s first lunar orbiter/fly mission is to fly, Luo said. By 2012, China space planners will be landing a rover on the Moon surface. In 2017, that country’s lunar exploration plans call for robotic lunar sample return missions.

“We call these three stages the first step of our lunar exploration,” Luo explained. “The first step will be done purely robotically … with unmanned missions.”

And in the future, Luo stated, “China will also consider the possibility of manned mission to the Moon.”

But by far the most extensive element of China’s space plans is within the arena of Earth orbiting satellites – from oceanographic, navigation, and telecommunications satellite systems to constellations of Earth observing and disaster mitigation spacecraft – Luo outlined an impressive cadre of upcoming missions. Furthermore, in-space testing of high-tech components is also slated.

China’s focus, Luo emphasized, is on conversion of space technology to a variety of applications to further the social and economic development of the nation. Commercialization of space products is also a priority.

Slow, steady, planned.
“I don’t regard it as a threat…I regard it as a challenge,” said former Congressman and National Space Symposium leader, Robert Walker, in an earlier interview with “I think the Chinese have a very ambitious space program … that they are doing for reasons of national prestige.”

I don't think he could be more wrong. Oh yes, the prestige is good, especially when the Chinese Government meets to discuss space funding, but to see this as a giant publicity stunt is exactly wrong. That's what the US is doing, whether they realise it or not, it appears to be inescapable, in the nature of their funding system. No Buck Rogers, No Bucks.

I think the Chinese have both a vision, and a plan. The plan is mutable, and will no doubt be revised many times in the future, as circumstances change. The vision remains. As Europe colonised the New World, because the Ming Dynasty of China withdrew into isolationism, well, the Chinese have learnt their lesson, and won't let it happen again. At worst they wish to be equal partners, but it appears to me they're slowly and patiently setting up the infrastructure they need for this. There's no hurry. It's not a race, that requires at least two competitors, and it seems one of them doesn't realise where the finish line is.

No comments: