Beijing, We Have a Space Program

China's latest launch of a three-person spacecraft shows the East moving well ahead of the once dominant West

  • Share
  • Read Later

At this moment, NASA’s Curiosity rover is crawling over the surface of Mars, making one remarkable discovery after another about the Red Planet’s possibly life-friendly past. The Hubble Space Telescope, aging but still going strong, is probing ever deeper into the universe. The Cassini mission to Saturn is unlocking the secrets of the Solar System’s second-largest planet and its moons.

The unmanned half of America’s space program, in short, is doing amazing things. But as China’s launch of a three-person spacecraft into earth orbit aboard a Long March 2-F rocket just made clear, our manned space program is not just limping along, it’s trailing behind even a comparative space race newbie. True, NASA astronauts have been doing important work aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — but they haven’t been able to use NASA hardware to get to and from the station since 2011, when the Atlantis made the final space-shuttle flight in history.

Instead, U.S. spacefarers have to hitch rides aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. In fact, NASA just inked a deal with the Russians to pay $424 million for six seats on Soyuz craft through 2016 — or a tidy $70 million per seat. They may also work out a deal with the private SpaceX corporation, which successfully delivered supplies to the ISS last year with an unmanned spacecraft. Space entrepreneur Elon Musk hopes to begin transporting astronauts to the station as early as next year — and undercut the Russians while doing so.

(MORE: Rock It, Man: Stunning Space Photos paired With Cosmic-Themed Songs)

But if the space agency wants to use its own rockets to send astronauts to the space station — or to the moon, or anywhere else — it’ll have to wait until 2016 at the earliest, when its Orion space capsule, still under development, could make its first crewed flight. For that to happen, however, NASA also has to build a new booster rocket; once the agency began to use on the space shuttle back in the early 1970s, it let its expertise in old-fashioned rocketry lapse. The planned new heavy-lift booster — called, prosaically enough, the Space Launch System — won’t be available until 2017 at best. And don’t count on either target actually being met. Ever since the end of the Apollo glory days, deadlines — on the manned side of the NASA ledger, at least — have been more like mere suggestions.

While NASA is stuck in a holding pattern, meanwhile, the Chinese are moving slowly but steadily forward with their own human spaceflight program. This week’s launch of two men and one woman into orbit aboard the Shenzhou 10 capsule is the third time China has sent a three-person crew into space; the first came in 2008 and the second last year. Those were preceded by two other manned missions — a two-person spacecraft in 2005 and one person in 2003. In 2011, China sent a small uncrewed space station into orbit as well, giving their spacefarers a place to go. That’s not likely to be the end of it, either: the Chinese have announced their intention to put up a full-size space station by the end of this decade, and ultimately to send astronauts to the moon.

And despite the more than 40-year lead both the U.S. and Russia have over China in sending humans to space, it’s not a stretch to think they could be kicking up lunar dust before we do. Russia’s human spaceflight program, which looked to be pulling ahead of ours in the late 1980s, largely collapsed along with the Soviet Union itself (although its low-tech, sturdy Soyuz capsules are still holding up).

(MORE: Today’s Weather on Saturn: Hurricane in the North Pole)

The U.S. program, meanwhile, petered out due simply to lack of commitment and lack of vision. America still thinks big, as evidenced by a recently unveiled proposal to tow an asteroid into orbit near the moon for future mining missions, which sounds harebrained and may well be, but at least shows imagination.

But while we’re thinking and talking big, other nations are thinking less, talking less — and quietly moving ahead.

MORE: South by Southwest: A Space Tourist Makes His Case

60 comments
AMcPhersn
AMcPhersn

The first thing the Chinese will do is get confirmation there *really* is an American flag on the moon...

fregatepallada
fregatepallada

To Michael - Personally I would not call a Soyuz spacecraft a low-tech vehicle. It had been modified couple of time, and according to NASA specifications. And yes, it still flying while high-tech and EXPENSIVE STS is retired 

aztecian
aztecian

ground control to major wong...

bookwerm
bookwerm

It is simply not NASA's role at this point in time to even be DEVELOPING a new launch vehicle, as private industry has exceeded them.

They should no more BUILD a new rocket than they should  build airplanes because they have to go to a conference! 

Instead, NASA buys seats on a commercial airline. If they want to ship something by air, they divvy it up until it fits in air transport.


The VERY same approach should be used in space exploration. Find the size of the ride they can BUY at a good price, design their experiments and products, and then do on orbit assembly of the modules. Worked for Space Station, can work for EVERY possible and credible exploration process.


To get launch cost down, you need to launch a lot on the same launcher, amortize the cost, and be efficient in operations. The shuttle was intended to do this, but was a complicated boondoggle in practice, with  a standing army of highly paid and trained folks supporting a low launch rate system.

Instead we use Space X, or our other Expendables and size our experiments and explorations for the ride.

don't size the ride (which doesn't exist and costs billions) for a giant chunk of mass.

alyssa.davis
alyssa.davis

think it's great that other nations are continuing to explore space. With more countries involved and maybe someday working together, it would make for cheaper costs to launch. SpaceUnited is currently working on off-the-grid housing in the hopes that one day people will be able to live on the Moon or Mars.



Alyssa Davis
Content Writer
SpaceUnited

benibiker
benibiker

And this a space race how?  The US already went to the moon, already has a space station, we've sent space craft all over our solar system, and China has has just now started to put people in space?  Again, this a space race why?  Been there done that folks...

lucidkevinor
lucidkevinor

This will be the last Chinese human space mission for quite some time. The next Shenzhou missions are expected to fly to the Tiangong 2 laboratory. This will be an expanded version of Tiangong 1, similar in design to the Russian 1986 Mir space station. It is expected to be able to sustain 20-day visits. It will probably not be launched until around 2015 or possibly later. The gap between the flight of Shenzhou 10 and Shenzhou 11 could ultimately prove to be the longest hiatus in Chinese human spaceflight to date.

http://www.australianscience.com.au/space/shenzhou-10-another-step-in-chinas-long-march-into-space/

The future for US space is surely for commercial interests to push this boundary, SpaceX etc. NASA seems to be focused on the wrong track in their manned exploration - they could well use their 'Discovery' model of robotic exploration for this area - rather than building it themselves.

aztecian
aztecian

do you think their space suites will smell like the stinky plastic crap they ship over to us?

CurtisLoew
CurtisLoew

Curiosity was launched on an Atlas V 541, a privately-managed rocket owned by Lockheed-Martin and launched by the United Launch Alliance. SpaceX is also doing launches on Falcon 9 rockets. They most recently launched a Dragon capsule to the ISS in March of this year. The truth is that private launch capability is more efficient than federally-managed launch capability. The SLS isn't planned to launch till 2017, and the initial launch will be an unmanned capsule launch. There isn't manned Orion capsule launch planned until 2021, years after SpaceX and Boeing will have begun crewed launches. At this point the SLS and Orion capsule are the reason NASA is having budget problems. Until Congress stops insisting on spending billions on pork-barrel spending, the manned space program will be playing catch-up to Russia and China.

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

OBAMA GOT RID OF NASA.....MADE IT INTO A TRAINING CAMP FOR MOSLEMS IN SPACE......WHAT AN IDIOT !!!!!!!

HE DESTROYED OUJR SPACE WARFARE CAPABILITY AND LEFT US AT THE MERCY OF THE RUSSIANS......NOW THE CHINESE.

HE IS SUPPOSED TO DEFEND THE USA.....HE HAS VIOLATED HIS CONTITUTIONAL OATH TO DO SO IN THIS REGARD AND MOANY MORE OTHERS.

WHO WILL SAVE US FROM THE EVIL EMPEROR?????   WHERE ARE THE JEDI KNIGHTS?.....LOL/....

valentine, comedian,lol 

wwheaton
wwheaton

The US, and its ISS partners, are closer, in terms of technical ability, to the capability to create bases on Mars and the Moon today than we were to being able to land on the Moon in May 1961, when JFK proposed his famous challenge.  

The ISS has given us much of the technical knowledge we need to bridge the gap between brief visits to the Moon and a permanent presence in space.  We do need to resolve the problems of the long-term effects of low gravity (0 g in deep space, 1/6 g on the Moon, 3/8 g on Mars) on humans, and protection from high-energy cosmic rays -- but both of these are definitely solvable issues that cannot stop a determined program.

It is remarkable that a recent careful poll as revealed 75-90% support for a human mission to Mars, even if it requires doubling NASA's budget.  This support extends broadly across the political spectrum, both left and right, and across age, sex, and other demographic groupings.  Space offers us potentially almost unlimited access to energy and material resources that can be used to revolutionize our economy, and protect us from a variety of threats to human life on Earth (plague, asteroid impact, environment,,,...), as Stephen Hawking has argued. 

To attain these benefits, the next step is a high-Earth orbit (HEO) station, probably in one of the Earth-Moon stable points (known as L1, L2, L4, or L5).  From the high-ground of these points (energetically twice as high as the ISS in LEO, Low-Earth Orbit), access to the entire inner Solar System is laid out before us.  Solar-electric propulsion, already demonstrated by the DAWN mission now exploring the Asteroid Belt. can take us to any of the planets or their moons, with only 1/15th or less propellent than is needed by the most powerful chemical rocket fuels. 

Base camps on the moons of Mars, the asteroids, or our own Moon, offer locations beyond HEO that have enormous potential material resources.  Surprisingly, the two "small" moons of Mars, Deimos and Phobos, (140 billion tons and 10,000 billion tons, respectively), are probably the easiest to reach, despite trip times of several months.  While the best target beyond HEO remains to be determined, I recommend these moons for consideration, as combining easy and frequent access, great scientific interest, large material resources, and logical placement as a base camp for a future human landings on Mars.


The current (embarrassing!) US inability to launch crews into low Earth orbit, resulting from our huge 1970s mistake of throwing away the Apollo infrastructure, will soon be rectified -- barring spectacular government foolishness.  If we are wise beyond that, we will seek to join with other nations (including China) in a project for all humanity, to spread Earth life to the limits of the Solar System, nourishing it and  protecting it from even huge disasters for at least many thousands of years to come.

guguelmail
guguelmail

I believe that the root problem is the rise of the posmodern culture, promoted by the academics of the humanities, which essentially is a rebuff of the authority of rationality and science, which are depicted as suspect at best and oppressive at worst. Together with that goes narcissism/populism (nobody should tell you what you should think or do) and identity politics (gender feminism, science is sexist etc.)

duduong
duduong

The Chinese space program is in anything but a race. The plan was laid out 15 years ago and covered 30 years of steady progress. It will be neither slowed down nor sped up for changes in political whim or outside circumstances. The Chinese understand that the core of a space program is not about launches or milestones but engineering expertise, and the best way to achieve that is to make sure your engineers are employed and busy doing meaningful jobs decades after decades.


MustBeReallyBored
MustBeReallyBored

Geez, a lot of drama over the Chinese doing what we've already accomplished nearly FIFTY years ago. Of course it will be easier for China, why develop what you can just steal. I'm fairly comfortable with China standing on NASA's shoulders, and when the new SLV gets completed, it will be back to business as usual for manned spaceflight.

Best thing to do would be for the US to improve its investment in NASA, and make a joint US-China-Russia effort to put folks on Mars instead of sitting on either sides of the oceans giving each other the Taylor Swift stink eye....

HarshPatel
HarshPatel

Bitches please... east was already dominant before west became dominant.. and west was only able to become dominant by staling gold and resources from the east... yes you heard it right Jesus was a middle eastern bitch!

RickHunter
RickHunter

"The U.S. program, meanwhile, petered out due simply to lack of commitment and lack of vision."

Just like everything else that the Federal Government decides to touch nowadays.  It is such a shame... We sure used to be great.  We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy.

 The US has descended to the depths by the level of selfishness in its citizenry as a whole.  This is how Rome fell the first time... and we've learned NOTHING from History as we're following the same path.

OdenIsle
OdenIsle

Our nation's space programs pushed our intellectual and technological capabilities and awed ourselves and the world.  It will be telling when the Chinese return to the moon before we or the Russians do... and it will be a profound Sputnik-like national psychological shock, but probably too late.

China's best scientists aspire to go to the moon and beyond while ours are lured to Wall Street to build algorithms designed to suck money out of our stock markets.  

rohit57
rohit57

Well, we are spending 2.7 trillion dollars a year on Medicaid and Medicare together.   We also are the biggest spenders on something which is euphemistically called defense.

That leaves us with precious little money for anything else.