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That Cold War Space Race? Some think it’s back on! August 9, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, International Politics, Science.

Interesting piece here in Foreign Policy magazine about how China is moving steadily towards a point where it will be ahead of the US in terms of space activity. In a sense the PRC is already ahead given that they have an usable system to launch humans into space whereas at the present moment the US is dependent upon the Russians and will be until such time as a successor to the Shuttle emerges.

Let’s note that the PRC is already ahead of the Russian Federation with two women astronauts, and all this within a decade of sending up their first astronaut in 2003.

In a way the major problem for the US is that it is trying to return to 1960s and 1970 approaches whereas Chine is moving through those approaches without the diversion of a space shuttle or all that that entailed.

In an accompanying article John Hickman makes two salient points. Firstly that:

The Chinese have not only matched many of the achievements of the US and Russians in space – and in far less time than it took their predecessors to reach the same milestones – they did so while avoiding their biggest mistakes.


The Chinese space program enjoys some important advantages over its U.S. rival. As the recent surge in missions attest, the Chines space program likely enjoys generous and stable government funding.

The first point can be expanded upon, in fairness – and this in no way detracts from Chinese achievement in the area – the PRC is using Soviet technology as its basis, but the great advantage of that is that that technology is tried and tested. In ten years they’ve moved from getting humans into orbit to having small scale but functional space stations, something that took almost two decades for the US and Soviets.

And he makes a further interesting point that:

…the programme has the support of a unified Chinese leadership; President Xi Jinping won’t be shutting down the Shenzhou missions to diminish the legacy of his predecessors, as President Richard Nixon did by ending manned lunar exploration.

One aspect of this is the rather cosmetic privatisation of US spaceflight, where launch capacity is being farmed out to the private sector – the federal state still having to pay, naturally (and to see how cosmetic this is consider the involvement of the aerospace industry in the past). The inability of the private sector to step up rapidly is, one might hope, educative. That and a lack of political will to fund it has hobbled the US return to human spaceflight.

But that political will is central. Obviously the PRC sees long term strategic interest in pursuing these programmes, and it’s not the only one. India has a small but efficient programme in train. What will be telling is whether these developments concentrate minds in Washington. It is hard to see how they could not, but there’s a strange mood abroad these days. We live in a time when anti-statism in its rightward form is dominant. Could it really be that that sentiment might come into direct conflict with US strategic interests?


1. LeftAtTheCross - August 9, 2013

Speaking in a professional capacity here WbS I can assure you that nothing happens “rapidly” in relation to spaceflight, whether in the private or the public sector.

Space-X have developed and are developing rocket vehicles and have completed missions to the International Space Station. (http://www.spacex.com/).


WorldbyStorm - August 9, 2013

That’s true in both respects. But again the whole Space-X stuff is a bit meh given that McDonnell Douglas etc were pivotally involved previously. And for all the hoopla in Washington they remain very much in the lead role. No US and there would be very little incentive for private human spaceflight and almost none at all outside of low earth orbit.


Michael Carley - August 9, 2013

It’s another example (semiconductors, internet, advanced manufacturing, pharmaceuticals) of private profit from public investment. The public (military industrial, if you like) sector has done the legwork on how to get into space; the private sector is now moving in to sell it back its own work.


LeftAtTheCross - August 9, 2013

There has been private profit extracted from space by contractors all the way along in fairness, in the development and manufacture of vehicle sub-systems. As you say though this is a big step for private enterprise, and a great leap…


Michael Carley - August 9, 2013

Just give it a while and they’ll be blaming their failures on over-regulation.


2. Michael Carley - August 9, 2013

One interesting thing about the Soviet, and now PRC, approach to space travel, as compared to the US’s, is that they did not indulge pork barrel politicians. The USSR came up with a sound, modular, design and stuck to it, and cancelled dead ends (Buran, Tu 144); the US deliberately spread work all over the country to keep Senators happy (c.f. Shuttle boosters).


WorldbyStorm - August 9, 2013

They were very pragmatic. One thinks of how when it was clear they were losing the race to the Moon to the US they simply diverted their resources to other goals, including Mars and Venus probes etc.


3. hardcorefornerds - August 9, 2013

“where launch capacity is being farmed out to the private sector – the federal state still having to pay” it’s not even the federal state – I remember reading about, I think maybe even Space-X and I think Nevada souring on a business relationship they’d set up but was costing the latter more than expected (and during a construction slump/bust comparable to ours). being privatised it’s subject less to (somewhat democratic) political whims but more to the vagaries of investment capital, and there’s less capacity to pool the resources of a diverse area, like the US nation as a whole. it’s like Ireland deciding to shoulder the cost of CERN or something (imagine what sort of exotic project the CHG could come up with…).

on the anti-statism conflicting with strategic interests, I would think for the most part patriotism, corporate welfare (in that the companies getting the NASA contracts are privately owned) and lack of political genuineness would continue to rule the day as previously. however, I can imagine it becoming a major football to the extent that private spaceflight became a competitor with state programmes, which as you say is some way off. mostly the US needs to decide what its ‘strategic interests’ are any more.


WorldbyStorm - August 9, 2013

I find it fascinating how this conflicts with the rhetoric of full spectrum dominance. There’s no way to have the latter without essentially public sector (to use a broad term) launch capability. And given the PRC’s move to human spaceflight that too needs to be countered. I was in some ways surprised that the US was willing to depend upon the Russians for human launches, unless, that is the much rumoured military human launch capability actually exists and all this is of no consequence. But that seems far-fetched. So it seems most likely it is a matter of political pressure.


4. Space Man - August 11, 2013

The first point can be expanded upon, in fairness – and this in no way detracts from Chinese achievement in the area – the PRC is using Soviet technology as its basis, but the great advantage of that is that that technology is tried and tested. In ten years they’ve moved from getting humans into orbit to having small scale but functional space stations, something that took almost two decades for the US and Soviets.

Sorry, but your point is monumental in it’s dumbness. The Chinese acheive something technological decades after the Russians did. By re-using the original Soviet technology. And they are to be lauded for what, getting there quicker? Yeah that does tend to happen when you’ve recieved such a monumental leg-up! STOP PRESS: WbS has discovered that it’s quicker to re-use someone else’s old technology than develop your own from the get-go … entire space industry sits up and takes note!


WorldbyStorm - August 11, 2013

Read both that portion and the rest of the post again.

That is admitted explicitly from the off in the portion you quote – that it it is indeed a monumental leg up to reuse the basics of a previously existing technological approach.

Where is it suggested otherwise?

But it is entirely fair to contrast the directness of th PRC approach with the chaos of US approach and the strangeness of a situation where the latter must depend on Russian launch capability for a prolonged period.

And just to add I don’t think that dependence is a good thing, not so much politically/ideologically as in terms of the need to have multiple launch capabilities on this planet.


5. Who Actually Won the Space Race? TEDEd Sets the Story Straight | The S.P.A.C.E Program - August 17, 2013

[…] That Cold War Space Race? Some think it’s back on! (cedarlounge.wordpress.com) […]


6. richotto - August 18, 2013

The article is interesting but dos’nt say whether the Chinese have developed anything beyond Soviet 70s gear. The USSR was behind technologically nearly all the time after the PR stunt of Sputnik ignited the space race. The chief advantage of the US which it still has I believe is the ability to launch a much greater payload into space if neccessary with the Saturn 5 rocket which underpinned the Apollo missions. After the moon landings there was comparitively little achievable in space race terms within tolerable costs and timeframe. It would be surprising to most onlookers at the time I believe how little has been achieved in space in the 44 years since 1969.
The main benefit space exploration has managed to bring is satilite communication and thats considered low technology. So its hard to see anything down the road thats comparable in any way with Science Fiction. Up to the Space Shuttle initial launches that kind of comparisson was still being considered not unreasonable.


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