Monday 30 June 2008

Tortoise and Hare - the Chinese Space Programme

From via Cumudgeon's Corner:
China is stepping up and out in the world of space exploration.

Space officials in that country are readying the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft for an October sendoff, one that will carry a trio of their "taikonauts" into Earth orbit.
China has initiated a step-by-step approach in flying their taikonauts: The single-person Shenzhou 5 flight in 2003 of 14 orbits; the two-person voyage of Shenzhou 6 in 2005 lasting 5 days; and soon to head skyward, a threesome of space travelers. And on this flight, one of those space travelers is to carry out China's first spacewalk, also known as extravehicular activity, or EVA for short.
For the U.S., the Mercury series of single-seat flights led to the two-person missions of Gemini spacecraft, followed by sojourns of the Apollo three-person crew capsule. More to the point, in the U.S., the first human-carrying orbital flight of Mercury was in 1962; Gemini in 1965; and Apollo in 1968.
Except... there were many Mercury, and even more Gemini flights as they got the "bugs out of the systems". Some of that can be ascribed to first-time experimentation, things that once shown to be possible, don't need repeating.
"Implications, as far as I can see...few, if any," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an analyst of China's space policy and Chair of the National Security Decision-Making Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Johnson-Freese told that the U.S. Mercury program of the 1960s was spearheading research just to see if humans could swallow in space...or how the human psyche would react once in Earth orbit. There were lots of medical questions, she noted.

NASA's Project Mercury was quickly followed by a salvo of 10 human-carrying Gemini flights from March 1965 to November 1966. All-in-all, piloted Mercury and Gemini orbital outings tally up to 14 flights in five years, Johnson-Freese observed — and don't forget those two earlier and piloted suborbital Mercury missions.

"Technology development was incremental because it was all new, but consistent," Johnson-Freese stressed.

"The Chinese will have three flights with a successful mission next fall. They have been able to benefit from lots of lessons learned from both the Americans and the Russians. That is not to downplay the difficulty of the technology or the achievements of the Chinese...they just have the luxury of starting much higher on the learning curve," she concluded.
Exactly - and it's because of that that I disagree with her "no big deal" assessment. Because there were a number of uncrewed Shenzhou missions before they sent a man up. Unlike the Space Race in the 60's, they weren't in a hurry, and didn't have to cut corners. They also benefit from nearly 50 years of development in the computer field, leading to far more reliable and robust systems. Ones far less complex than desktop computers, but then, they don't have to be more complex than most microwave ovens or washing machines. Just reliable. Systems in the 60's were neither as capable, nor as reliable.
"Yes, is worth flagging," said Dean Cheng, an Asian affairs specialist at the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analysis in Alexandria, Virginia.

"Now, the flip side to that, of course, is that it has also been done before. So it's not like they need to engineer everything from scratch," Cheng told, adding that China can depend on designs similar to those proven to work by the U.S. and former Russians. "But, yes, it is nonetheless impressive."

Cheng points out, however: "The main difference ...there were more Mercury and Gemini flights in the intervening period. What is interesting about the Chinese effort is that they are doing it with so few flights. Four unmanned flights...then pow-pow-, two-man, three-man/EVA."
What they haven't done yet is trained a cadre of Taikonauts in the skills required in the 60's as regards docking, station-keeping and EVA. But as the Russians have shown with their automated Progress craft docking with Mir, even primitive 80's and 90's technology should be good enough.
Roger Launius, senior curator for the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C (said) "Learning what China needs to know about conducting a lunar trip, probably a circumlunar trip, on three missions seems a bit thin to me," Launius told
"Let's take the Gemini program," Launius said. "A central reason for it was to perfect techniques for rendezvous and docking, EVA, and long duration flight. Assuming that these same skills will be required in a Chinese moon program, and I believe they will, where will the knowledge and experience for them come from in these three missions?"
"A core question, it seems to me, is this: "Will ground simulation be able to compensate for the lack of orbital experience?" Launius said. "Perhaps, but I'm not sure."
I would expect a series of uncrewed missions to test out the automated docking systems required, possibly in conjunction with a crewed mission. It's a cautious, but not necessarily slow, "progress" if you'll pardon the pun.

The long-term strategy is to have a reliable, tested system for getting people to and from a permanent, largely self-sustaining lunar base, within the next 50 years. The plan is to get some more uncrewed lunar surveyors and sample-return landers working by 2017, while activities continue in earth orbit. Activities including a construction facility for assembling lunar missions. If all goes well, expect a crewed landing in 2020, but it could easily be later than that. There's no hurry, and to telegraph their moves with Space Spectaculars is exactly what they don't want. The US space program has been captured by political pork-barelling, and is seen primarily as a way to distribute largesse to political constituents. If they make a workable spacecraft, so much the better, but really, that's not necessary.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are steadily building up the necessary infrastructure. Tracking facilities, an Taikonaut Corps...
Earlier this month, it was noted that six taikonauts had been selected for the upcoming mission from 14 candidates — a crowd that included Yang Liwei, China's first space explorer who flew solo on Shenzhou 5. For Shenzhou 7, three will fly the actual mission with the others tagged as substitutes.

Also, Yuanwang 6, an ocean-going tracking ship, has been delivered for service in Shanghai to participate in the Shenzhou 7 flight and to assist in the slated spacewalk. It joins sister ship, Yuanwang 5, to take part in maritime space surveying and mission controlling operations.

Qi Faren, academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and researcher of China Spaceflight Technology Research Institute — credited as chief designer of China's first five Shenzhou spaceships and chief consultant for Shenzhou 6 and Shenzhou 7 - has been quoted as saying that plans are already underway for Shenzhou 8 and Shenzhou 9. He added that "the intervals between each launch will become shorter."
As was said a few months ago:
Last year, the United States managed 16 space launches; Russia had 22; China blasted off 10.

China's exploding economy is paying for the education of hundreds of thousands of engineers each year, they are acquiring less space technology from other nations and developing more of their own, and they appear committed to dominating the heavens.

Their space program is still behind, says Robert Zubring, one of America's strongest proponents for Mars travel, but it is rocketing.

"And we're standing still. If we continue to stand still, by the middle of the next decade, their space program will be superior to ours and they'll be moving on to the moon and Mars, while we're ... looking back on our former greatness," he said.

Just in November, a Chinese robotic spacecraft circled the moon, capturing 3-D images. Chinese scientists talk about mining the lunar surface for possible nuclear energy resources that are plentiful there but rare on Earth.

Mars is a real target for future travel.
All three major presidential candidates -- Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain -- say space is important, but none is strongly talking about a timeline for the moon or Mars. And certainly, there are other pressing issues: the war and the economy.

But there is genuine and growing fear among some scientists that if space does not become a higher priority, the Chinese program will be on par with America's by the end of the next president's second term. Then, it will be a real race to Mars even if we want to join in.
"Race" to Mars? No, the Chinese aren't interested in "races". They're interested in exploitation and colonisation. Mars will still be there when they've finished building up a good lunar infrastructure for interplanetary travel. And others are sending one-off scientific missions every few decades.

More on the Chinese Space programme - Space Plane, The Moon as a nuclear He3 source, Slow, Steady, Planned, Lunar Plans,2006 Summary, Moon Plans Firm Up, Shenzhou 6 again, Shenzhou 6, Shenzhou 6 Preparations, Moon Programme Updated and others...

Here's what I wrote 5 years ago:
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.
Make that 45 now.