Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Red Moon Rising?

With the rise of China's manned space program, there has been a wave of speculation (supported by boasts from a few eager Chinese space officials) that the PRC wants to put a man on the moon. If China's current space efforts are indicative of the future, it will be quite some time before a Taikonaut walks on the moon. When the Chinese flag is finally planted on the moon's surface, Americans should be there to greet him.

China should be commended for building a manned spacecraft with similar capabilities to the Russian Soyuz. But there is a vast technological leap between flying a Soyuz and putting men on the moon. China lacks the booster rocket that will launch a lunar spacecraft, and they lack a lander that can carry humans from lunar orbit to the lunar soil. These things took years to develop, even during the free-spending days of Apollo.

Even more telling than the lack of hardware is the lack of skills needed to fly to the moon. China still has to make a spacewalk, a docking, or a flight of two weeks duration with the Shenzhou spacecraft. And according to the current schedule, these feats will be some time in coming. Shenzhou 7 will demonstrate the spacewalk, while missions 8 & 9 will dock with each other. The problem is that Shenzhou 7 won't launch until 2007. If China continues with the trend of two years between manned missions, we won't see Shenzhou 8 & 9 until 2009. On top of that, China wants to launch a space station sometime after 2010. This will certainly push back the date for any proposed moon landing.

It's clear that China's space program has some military implications, although the degree is yet to be determined. It's widely believed that previous Shenzhou missions have carried either image intelligence or signals intelligence payloads. The fact that the Shenzhou orbital modules have stayed in orbit long past the reentry of the Shenzhou capsules makes some observers suspicious about their true purpose. I tend to view Shenzhou as a bastardized version of the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory proposal from the mid 60's. The most important thing to remember is that Shenzhou isn't purely military, but the unfurling of UN flags and other gestures of peace by Taikonauts shouldn't be seen as sincere, either.

China's priorities are pretty clear at this point, and the space program isn't being given a particularly high ranking. For now, China is content with a manned mission every two years. In the near future, we will see a Chinese rocket similar to the Delta IV and Atlas V. We will also see a space station similar to the Russian Salyut from the 70's. But we won't be seeing a red moon anytime soon.