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Liftoff for the Chinese Dream
December 15, 2013 7:43 AM   Subscribe

China’s Space Program Is Taking Off — "Its engineers have caught up with Europe when Europe was 20 years behind the space-racing superpowers. But by 2020 or a little thereafter, when the International Space Station (ISS) may be on its last legs, Chinese space managers expect to have a Mir-class space station in orbit. ... As was the case with the Cold War space powers, China's leaders are using human spaceflight to signal the world—and the long-suffering Chinese people—that Beijing's state-capitalism approach has won modern superpower status for their ancient society." From Aviation Week & Space Technology, November 25, 2013.
posted by cenoxo (45 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Regardless of the political intent, the fact that we're going back to the moon is hugely exciting. I know it may not be as scientifically exciting as Mars and other targets, but this is the space of my childhood and I'm thrilled.
posted by arcticseal at 7:53 AM on December 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


China Lands On The Moon: Historic Robotic Lunar Landing Includes 1st Chinese Rover, December 14, 2013.
posted by cenoxo at 7:53 AM on December 15, 2013


I'm all for this. Not only for China, but for the US as well if it rekindles an interest in pushing the boundaries of what humans can achieve in space, rather than a narrowed focus on what is commercially viable/profitable. On that note, I guess it's kind of sad that it appears the US requires a competitor to push it forward in spaceflight -- I think I always had a fantasy that there was something deep with the human psyche that would push us a species onward and upward, and the retreat from space by the formerly most developed nation on earth was a real wet blanket on that idea.
posted by modernnomad at 7:55 AM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


I love a good space race. Go India!
posted by Artw at 8:03 AM on December 15, 2013 [12 favorites]


I don't know. The development of commercial spaceflight here has been driven by exactly that spirit; sure, it has to be commercially viable, but all the initial investment was just because it's awesome. And it's not as though the Mars program hasn't been a huge success.

Go China, though.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:04 AM on December 15, 2013


From the Space.com article linked above:
And there was another touch of space history marked during China's moon landing.

"Here is a very interesting angle," said James Rice, science team member of the Mars Exploration Rover Project and senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. "On this date in 1972, Apollo 17's Gene Cernan took the last steps from the moon’s surface as he climbed aboard the Challenger lunar module."

Cernan served as mission commander for Apollo 17, which was NASA's final Apollo moon landing flight by astronauts.
posted by cenoxo at 8:04 AM on December 15, 2013


Whatever happened to Paul Allen's asteroid farming efforts? Bezos is going to get to those asteroids first!
posted by Artw at 8:08 AM on December 15, 2013


Bezos is developing a fleet of drones to drop asteroids on our porches from orbit. It will cut asteroid delivery time by a huge margin.
posted by Flunkie at 8:15 AM on December 15, 2013 [6 favorites]


Only half joking when I observe that we finally have a science based country on the moon. :/
posted by tksh at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


On this date in 1972, Apollo 17's Gene Cernan took the last steps from the moon’s surface as he climbed aboard the Challenger lunar module."

*shrugs*

Comparing the departure of the sixth manned lunar landing to a coutnry's first robotic lander and rover on the Moon smacks of human navel gazing that is looking for some sort of higher meaning. It can be spun however one choses.

Don't get me wrong, I've been eagerly following Chang'e 3's progress. But it is disappointing to see this achievement of theirs framed in terms of a space race or as another symbol of American's decline and China's rise. It's as if people are locked into seeing these accomplishments through short sighted national eyes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:21 AM on December 15, 2013 [11 favorites]


man they are doing some awesome shit, or at least trying to. I mean, I have no fucking idea how they can figure out what happened to the Martian atmosphere from the moon, or maybe they are looking into what happened to the moon atmosphere from the moon. This is what happens when I half-listen to NPR. Go China.
posted by angrycat at 8:24 AM on December 15, 2013


Ah, my country once dreamed of going to space.
Now we spend our money and technological know-how on flying unmanned death machines that bomb children and weddings in out of the way mountain villages.
posted by Enigmark at 8:35 AM on December 15, 2013 [13 favorites]


Space Race ARghhhhhhhu, it is US/earthians/humans VS. it.

"It" being the universe.

Local ecological catastrophes.

Killer Asteroids.

Unanticipated super gigantic sunspots that burn off the third planets atmosphere.

Local mistakes such as Nuclear War.

Other*

* Other being a very long list of things things that prevent all of us from eating or breathing.

(I personally, and from what I can tell every single scientist and engineer are thrilled and pleased that China, India and even Iran are contributing to the Human Race to get off this lovely rock)
posted by sammyo at 8:46 AM on December 15, 2013


It's as if people are locked into seeing these accomplishments through short sighted national eyes.

I actually don't know what the "right" lens to look at this could possibly be. I mean, it's a cool technical achievement (but others have done it for a long time), it's a new capability for China (but let's not be nationalistic about it(?)), it causes all sorts of nostalgic opinions to reappear in the US about the moon (but that's using someone else's accomplishments as a mirror), it's science (but not super new science, because honestly we already have the rocks from Apollo). So, like, what is the "right" frame for this? I just don't think there's a truly independent way to look at this, there's no way to look at something which is primarily a national achievement without such comparisons.

(I'm totally on board with not reading too much into dates though. Given any mission plan I'm sure you could find some event in this mission that corresponds to some event in Apollo.)
posted by kiltedtaco at 8:46 AM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Want the US back in space? Spin this moon rover mission as "Chinese military sends drone to moon."
posted by infinitewindow at 8:54 AM on December 15, 2013 [7 favorites]


If the US ends up giving the Bay of Rainbows to Japan I'll just scream.
posted by de at 8:59 AM on December 15, 2013


Now we spend our money and technological know-how on flying unmanned death machines that bomb children and weddings in out of the way mountain villages.

There are many legitimate questions and concerns about US foreign policy and use of drones which have almost nothing to do with space exploration, so please don't conflate the two.
NASA is doing plenty of space exploration throughout the solar system: NASA is doing plenty of space exploration. If I were a smarter monkey, I would have Googled "NASA current missions" and found this tidy little list on Wikipedia.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:11 AM on December 15, 2013 [29 favorites]


Regarding wheels on the Moon, the Russian Lunokhods got there first. Regarding space vehicles of any type, where would we be without Nazi Germany and the spoils of Victory? Progress is a messy, complicated affair.
posted by cenoxo at 9:13 AM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ah, my country once dreamed of going to space. Now we spend our money and technological know-how on flying unmanned death machines that bomb children and weddings in out of the way mountain villages.

The United States didn't go to the moon because a couple of Hare Krishnas in the 60's got together and thought it was a good idea. Feel free to remember that space travel has its origins in the missile-based arms race that followed World War 2, and the rest was marketing.

What's amazing is how much the American attitude towards China has changed in the last 20 years, even though we still perceive them as a threat, and how much weaker our position in the world is, even though our military is sort of meekly "pivoting" over to Asia.

Please don't pretend like space travel and political posturing haven't always gone hand in hand. There are two areas of militarization that the United States has traditionally been dominant in, that you may want to consider (especially now that we are not economically dominant) are the cornerstones of Pax Americana: one of them has been space, the other has been nuclear weapons. If somebody else were to fly patrols over the United States or drop a nuclear bomb anywhere in the world in the course of war, this would signal the end of an era that everyone on this planet grew up in.
posted by phaedon at 9:17 AM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Were would they be without Zheng He.
posted by clavdivs at 9:39 AM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Great PR win for PRC. And make no mistake about it - landing on the moon is and always has been about PR. I'm not sure if I am looking forward to a Chinese Century though.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:41 AM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


NASA is doing plenty of space exploration.

And we are basically doing it on a shoestring, plus most of these missions were conceived/executed in a (relatively) more flush period money-wise. The longer-term prospects for US space exploration are not nearly as rosy.

Perhaps if we spent more to fund both manned/unmanned missions than we spend on, say, the F-35 (total lifetime program cost $1 trillion dollars), the LCS ($400 million per boat), or a few less M-1 Abrams tanks ($8 million each when we have 3000 or so mothballed in the desert) then we could have nice things with regard to space exploration.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 9:52 AM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


As long as China stops insisting they are not a developed country when it comes to curbing carbon emissions, then up with this sort of thing.
posted by oneironaut at 9:54 AM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


There are many legitimate questions and concerns about US foreign policy and use of drones which have almost nothing to do with space exploration, so please don't conflate the two.

Heh.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:55 AM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


So poking around, it looks like much of their information about China's intentions for the future of their space program comes from the IAC conference (64th International Astronautical Congress) that took place in the fall. The article actually does a pretty good job of contextualizing this -- pointing out that much of what is presented at the IAC is about intentions, not necessarily technology that's actively being developed or missions that have been funded and are on track for launch. (There's actually a list of all the IAC symposia and the presentations that were given online, which is interesting to look at -- it's a mix of reports regarding ongoing missions [like this presentation about entry/descent/landing for the MSL Curiosity] and presentations on proposed mission architectures or technologies [like this Chinese presentation about master/slave satellites for future Mars exploration.] Unfortunately there aren't links to the papers themselves, although I'll bet at least some of them could be tracked down online.)

Which is all to say that I'll be interested to see which of these intended technologies and missions end up on the launch pad, and which will begin and end with a presentation that inspires "The Future of Chinese Spaceflight!!!" articles like this one. I mean, the MSL started out as a starry-eyed presentation, too. It's hard to say what'll happen and what won't. But I'll admit that the lack of transparency and the shameless propaganda angle both make me a little cynical.

(Then again, if overstated Chinese spaceflight intentions are what kicks the US and Russia [and the ESA??] into getting their act together regarding next generation launch capabilities and deep space human exploration, then hey! BRING ON THE BREATHLESS PROPAGANDA, PLEASE!)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:05 AM on December 15, 2013


Centrally controlled governments can do big science very very well. The USA was ignorant of this and caught completely by surprise when the backwards farmer Russians launched a satellite in orbit and built the world's first ICBM. Heck they couldn't even build a decent car, who would think they could build spaceships. Wernher von Braun was aware that the Soviets were capable of doing big science well, afterall he came from a Nazi background and saw firsthand how resources and people could be thrown at a problem, but his warnings went unheeded, until Sputnik. That started the space/arms race. Of course all these big science projects are the friendly side of a coin, the other side is military which is the primary reason the Chinese (and Soviets and Americans) ever had a space program.
posted by stbalbach at 10:10 AM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, seriously, pitting NASA's budget against the defense budget isn't really a helpful tactic. In part because the defense industry and the aerospace industry are so tightly intwined with one another, and in part because the only way that NASA will get money is if congress votes to do so, and congress is demonstrably disinterested in pissing off either the defense industry, the many many Americans employed by it, or the many other Americans who feel very strongly about having a powerful military.

"We spend way too much money on tanks and planes" is a great conversation to be have. But maybe let's not drag NASA into it.

If congress thinks that funding NASA will get them re-elected, they'll do it. Positive messages of support and public engagement and interest are much more likely to accomplish this.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:12 AM on December 15, 2013


Heh [50 Years of NASA's budget vs. 1 year of Pentagon spending].

It's really a shame there weren't invaders from Mars in the 1890s. Being such a prickly species, we would have retaliated, developed space dreadnoughts, invaded and occupied the Red Planet, and been so busy for a few decades that we missed WWI and WWII.
posted by cenoxo at 10:21 AM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, seriously, pitting NASA's budget against the defense budget isn't really a helpful tactic.

There's also the fact that we spend a hell of a lot less of our GDP on defense than we did in NASA's human exploration heyday (personally I think it's really underrated the things we are doing robotically these days, but I realize that lacks some of the appeal of actually setting foot somewhere).
posted by dsfan at 10:22 AM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Centrally controlled governments can do big science very very well. The USA was ignorant of this and caught completely by surprise when the backwards farmer Russians launched a satellite in orbit and built the world's first ICBM.

A lack of transparency and lax attitudes about safety also help. The more I learn about the early years of Russian spaceflight, the more surprised I am that so few cosmonauts died. And as for China, I mean, can you imagine what would happen to NASA if a rocket test destroyed the entire launch center and (allegedly) killed hundreds of people? Both the Columbia and Challenger disasters grounded all shuttle launches for years. Whereas the Xichang disaster in 1996 seemed to have basically no impact on the forward momentum of the Chinese space program at all.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:22 AM on December 15, 2013 [5 favorites]


Whitey's economy is a total fail
and China's on the Moon.
He's got no place left to dwell
And China's on the moon
He can't pay no student loan bill
And China's on the Moon.
Ten years from now he'll be paying still
And China's on the moon
posted by humanfont at 10:48 AM on December 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Frankly I think air conditioning the desert is a much more worthy use of my tax dollars that a space program.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:50 AM on December 15, 2013


Regardless of the political intent, the fact that we're going back to the moon is hugely exciting.

Going to the moon has always been a political act with military underpinnings. This is certainly no different and I suppose it is only a matter of time until the Chinese claim that the moon has always been a part of China and establish an outer China Moon Defense Identification Zone around it.
posted by three blind mice at 11:14 AM on December 15, 2013


The white flags lying around up there aren't symbols of surrender. The world knows that.
posted by de at 11:36 AM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, seriously, pitting NASA's budget against the defense budget isn't really a helpful tactic.

It's pretty narrow-minded, too, given that NASA and defense technology paths are inextricably intertwined. For instance, ISS (Space Station Freedom + Mir 2, very much in fact) was conceived not just as a way to spend the "peace dividend" but as a way to employ the high-tech sector in Russia in meaningful ways rather than turning into an expatriate force of missile experts selling their brains to the highest bidder.

I suppose it is only a matter of time until the Chinese claim that the moon has always been a part of China

Well, they have ratified the Outer Space Treaty, so there's that. But anyone who imagines there won't come a day of claiming planetary bodies, with all the attendant folderol such as stalking-horse colonization, is fooling themselves. And in contrast to some of the thinking when these agreements were conceived, a world government isn't likely to be in place before then.

Personally, I do have mixed feelings. I admire China for this accomplishment, and its crewed space program, and I do personally like the idea of us pursuing exploration of the Moon and Mars with a view toward eventual permanent settlement of some type, but I'm also a little jaded by the cost and risk of sending humans out into deep space. There's much still to be done with robots (and alas, developing Orion and Constellation has sapped funding for that side of things, just as Shuttle and ISS had for many years). Still, I think a commercial venture such as asteroid mining is likely to be more of a sustainable basis for future technological expansion in this area.

I'm not too concerned about national pride should China decide to send a crewed vehicle to the Moon -- after all, it's us who set the bar.

The main thing that concerns me is that we're no longer thinking in terms of national capability, the way that Sputnik forced us to think about how much STEM education investment we needed. There were many superb things that came out of that renewed focus, and one of them is this thing we're typing at each other on.
posted by dhartung at 1:54 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


As long as China stops insisting they are not a developed country when it comes to curbing carbon emissions, then up with this sort of thing.

Well, they aren't a developed country, and further they are showing more intent to control their emissions than the US certainly is at the moment.

(Not a fan of CCP)
posted by smoke at 2:45 PM on December 15, 2013


There's much still to be done with robots (and alas, developing Orion and Constellation has sapped funding for that side of things, just as Shuttle and ISS had for many years).

That presumes that if we didn't have a human spaceflight program, all of that money and all of those resources would be redirected toward robotic exploration. But I don't think that would necessarily be the case.

NASA is a public agency. The American people own it, in a very literal sense -- much more literal than I think most citizens realize. Public engagement and interest, combined with the momentum of precedent, are what keep it funded. And people care very much about each other in a way they'll never care about robots (short of an SF-nal android).

The failure of the Apollo program was that it didn't take advantage of its window of public engagement to do bigger, better things; that it was conceived and designed to achieve a superficial set of goals in a manner that was unsustainable. Rather than investing in an orbital infrastructure that would let us keep launches smaller and costs lower, we stuck with "all up" missions and single-use vehicles. Rather than designing mission architectures around true exploration and investigation, we built Apollo as a flags-and-footprints operation -- once we'd proven that we could do it, we were left scrambling to figure out what to do next.

But even Apollo -- even that clunky, inefficient, unsustainable program of propaganda and flags-on-the-Moon -- inspired generations of people to become scientists and engineers. The MSL and Cassini and now the Chinese lunar rovers are all really interesting, but they don't punch you in the gut the way human exploration can. Looking at photos of the Earth from space isn't the same as listening to another person describe how it feels to be out on an EVA. As I said above, people are wired to care about other people, and I don't think that's a bad thing, or something to push back against. It's something to take advantage of.

And that's not even getting into the ENORMOUS volume of knowledge we've gained over the course of a half-century of human spaceflight, much of which has been applied here on Earth in our daily lives. Keeping people alive in space is hard; keeping them healthy is harder. Designing and fabricating materials, vehicles, and systems that can withstand the stresses of space and operate properly in microgravity is also hard, and much of what makes it hard can't be replicated properly on Earth. NDT has talked extensively about this over the years, and he has an excellent point. There's tremendous value in solving difficult problems.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:57 PM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


KokuRyu: "I'm not sure if I am looking forward to a Chinese Century though."

Can't be any worse than looking forward from 1913 and contemplating the American century.
posted by Mitheral at 4:09 PM on December 15, 2013


America just because China does something great doesn't mean we need to throw some jealous fit about it. When your brother wins a prize you don't hit him in the mouth or start enumerating his flaws.
posted by humanfont at 5:03 PM on December 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


America just because China does something great doesn't mean we need to throw some jealous fit about it. When your brother wins a prize you don't hit him in the mouth or start enumerating his flaws.

Nonono, you gotta think strategically!

Step 1: China lands a rover on the moon.
Step 2: Xenophobic American politicians freak out.
Step 3: American moon base!
Step 4: Moon vacations!
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:20 PM on December 15, 2013


When your brother wins a prize you don't hit him in the mouth or start enumerating his flaws.

Of course not, you mess up the staging of his rockets in KSP and then laugh hysterically when they blow up.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:23 PM on December 15, 2013


That presumes that if we didn't have a human spaceflight program, all of that money and all of those resources would be redirected toward robotic exploration. But I don't think that would necessarily be the case.

Narrative Priorities, my comment was not some sort of in-an-ideal-world plaint. It's based on the real history of Shuttle's development, funding, and operational success but in many ways political failure. (Briefly: starts as "Nasa wants a science space plane; USAF wants a spy-catcher space plane; Congress says combine efforts; result works but not elegantly; cost-control objective fails utterly; NASA tries to do commercial space launches to recover costs; fails utterly (most expensive launch platform in history); Shuttle all but phased out when Cold War abruptly ends; ISS (and international hand-shaking) becomes new purpose of Shuttle; continued high costs burden agency with white elephant; etc.) In many ways NASA critics have urged for years that they privatize commercial launches and ISS resupply as a way to foster a viable industry that will free the agency to seek funding for those things that are best publicly-funded. As I said, I'm not against human spaceflight per se, just skeptical of it, and particularly given the way that planetary science missions have been defunded, suspended, and cancelled, I think I'm speaking of reality. In just the last month, the American Astronomical Society has petitioned the White House to reexamine priorities, particularly in light of the axing of the Advanced Stirling Radioisotope Generator, which would have been useful for outer solar system exploration missions. They have little enthusiasm since last year, the planetary exploration agenda was hacked in half. Constellation itself was $9 billion sunk into nothing. Orion might eventually launch on the simplified SLS/Ares, but that's about the fourth or fifth plan to replace Shuttle that's been on the boards (many of them with sunk, unrecovrable costs) and still we're hitching rides on Soyuz.

Anyway, I'm getting away from my original point, which is that a NASA more focused on doing the stuff it does best might be able to sell those programs (on a reduced budget) to Congress more successfully. As it was, though, the human, fiscal, and organizational investment in crewed spaceflight by NASA meant that any other programs were simply permanently stuck with less pull. As much as I love to see our birds fly, it's very frustrating to see year after year of mismanagement and failure to reach even limited goals, while programs that are an unbridled success year after year are forced to beg for scraps.
posted by dhartung at 5:53 PM on December 15, 2013


Can't be any worse than looking forward from 1913 and contemplating the American century.

Well, they aren't a developed country, and further they are showing more intent to control their emissions than the US certainly is at the moment.

You guys are nuts.
posted by phaedon at 10:20 PM on December 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Only half joking when I observe that we finally have a science based country on the moon. :/

The other half is the part of you that thinks we flew a homeopathocopter to the moon, or used the power of prayer? What do you think NASA does?
posted by michaelh at 10:30 PM on December 15, 2013


Sorry, I was pretty much trolling with that comment and was a bit bummed out it took China this long.

I have no doubt about what NASA does but, these days especially, the nations of US and Russia, and their respective governments that fund their space programs, feel heavily motivated by ideology and religious belief. Even the space race was framed in an us vs communist context, rather than for the pursuit of science and engineering development. Modern China has a lot of other problems but religious beliefs and ideology shaping national interests is not one of them. The latest third plenum is quite pragmatic.

Overall, just happy that China is taking this slowly and steadily, and taking economic reforms at the same time. Hopefully one will support the other.
posted by tksh at 7:30 PM on December 24, 2013


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