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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

What to make of the Chinese space effort?

By Phil Plait

[I've been holding off writing about the Chinese space launch due to prior commitments and also because I've been trying to gather my thoughts about it. I'm still not sure where I fall, so here are some of my feelings. They are, of course, subject to change upon better arguments and evidence. I'll note also not everyone thinks crewed exploration of space is important. To be clear: those people are wrong, and I have a list of blog posts explaining why.]

Last week, the Chinese launched a crew of three into space. Their destination: the Chinese space station Tiangong-1, which -- for now -- consists of a single orbiting module about 10 meters long by 3 across. The Shenzou 9 capsule carrying the astronauts (sometimes called taikonauts) successfully docked with the station on Monday -- the first time the Chinese have docked a crewed capsule, making them only the third nation to have achieved this feat (after Russia and the US). Video from the event was posted on YouTube:

That's pretty amazing -- the docking was done by remote control from Earth, and appears to have gone pretty well. The crew is now aboard Tiangong-1, getting it set up.

Much like the International Space Station which was launched one piece at a time and assembled in orbit, it's clear China plans on expanding Tiangong-1. Tiangong-1 is the first in a series of planned space stations by China.

I've been reading about China's space efforts, and I have to say I am uneasy by a lot of it. My first impulse, as I've written before, is that space is open to everyone, and the more the merrier. I've also been vocal about the need to avoid a "Space Race" mentality: us versus them doing something first. The problem with that is that it isn't sustainable. Once you win (or lose) you're done. I think it's the main reason Apollo scaled so far back after even the first landing, and why we didn't continue on to build a moonbase, or at least the 2001-style orbiting space station.

On the other hand, we also need to avoid the been-there-done-that mentality as well. For one thing, the NASA that went to the Moon is literally no longer the NASA that exists today. We have different rockets, different technology, and most importantly different people, both in political office as well as in the NASA engineering departments. Sure, we went to the Moon in 60s and 70s, but it is literally impossible for us to go back at the current time, and will be for many years to come. That's worth remembering.

I say this because Amy Shira Teitel has an excellent summary of the Chinese space program on her blog. It's a repost from last year, but it covers a lot of the background of where we are. However, she makes a point I think needs discussing:

It could go two ways. Either China will become an ally like modern Russia, or it could become an adversary like the former Soviet Union...But China isnât really a threat yet, at least not enough of one that NASA would enter into another space race.

I think we need to have a care here. If we take a snapshot of NASA and China, then this may be true. But looking over time, I'm not so sure. China is showing a capability now to do things NASA cannot do: most obviously, launch humans into space. That capability may be back soon, whether through NASA's own rocket system or commercial ventures like SpaceX. But right now, China has far more momentum than NASA does. In the US we're arguing over this or that project getting its funding cut, while we make very little progress in crewed exploration. It's worrisome.

Amy goes on:”

Thatâs one thing China has available to its space program that NASA doesnât: money.

This is true, but it's part of a bigger picture; there is something else China's space program has: political will. The money flows from that. NASA doesn't have the money because there is little and certainly not effective enough political will in the White House or Congress for it. And what NASA gets is a dwindling budget, and then internal fighting over shrinking funding.

This is not a healthy environment for exploration and the furtherance of humankind.

And looking at China itself is a cause for worry. It's clear the government doesn't have much concern for its people, but it also doesn't appear to have much concern for global space exploration. In 2007, the Chinese blew up one of their own satellites, scattering thousands of pieces of debris in orbital space and endangering lots of other satellites. This was a really stupid and dangerous stunt they pulled; I called it "evil" when I discussed it in a video I made. I haven't changed my opinion since then. That bit of saber-rattling looms large when I think about what this week's Tiangong-1 docking means.

Mind you, China has already stated they want to go to the Moon. They've launched probes there, and this crewed mission to their space station trivially shows they can put people in space.

So where does that leave us?

I want there to be peaceful cooperation in space. But I also know there are bad guys out there. We are on peaceful, but perhaps not entirely friendly, terms with China. And to me, their motives are somewhat suspect. Scientist and lunar exploration advocate Paul Spudis wrote an interesting article about this for Air and Space. His concerns seem more pointed than mine, but he correctly says that China must have an eye for controlling or at least protecting their access to the volume of space between the Earth and Moon.

The consequences of this are difficult to ascertain. We have an increasingly reactionary and jingoistic Congress, for example, which for once may work in our favor. They may see the need to further fund NASA and not cede the exploration of space to another nation. But if they do see that, we must make sure they don't let this get out of hand and become a true race, like Apollo in the 1970s. Otherwise, in ten years, we'll be back where we are now: with a national space agency that doesn't have a long (or even medium) term goal, squabbling for dwindling funds, and an entire country that's lost the vision it once had, and so desperately needs again.

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