Chair Force Engineer

Friday, August 01, 2008

Red Scare

As we head into the Beijing Olympics, the event is being widely portrayed as a means for China to enhance its national prestige. The same is generally said about China's manned spaceflight program.

Since 2003, the Shenzhou project has moved at a slow flight rate but has achieved very deliberate goals. The second mission, two years later, introduced a second "taikonaut" into the capsule. The third mission, anticipated for later this year, will probably be China's first spacewalk. It's fair to say that China's manned spaceflight program matches the prowess of the Gemini and Voskhod programs, and is quickly catching up to the early Soyuz.

Beginning in 2010, China intends on launching the first in a series of incrementally-more-capable space modules, leading up to a true space station. Beyond that general plan, China's manned space activities are anybody's guess. While the words "China" and "Moon" are linked together in the minds of many, there has been no stated desire by Chinese officials for a human lunar landing.

In spite of the slow flight rates and unanswered questions, this hasn't stopped American space officials, including Michael Griffin and Richard Gilbrech, from painting a "doom and gloom" picture of a new space race with China, with the moon as the ultimate destination. Even Buzz Aldrin has warned that China will make it to the moon with a human by 2017. The implied message to Americans: keep supporting all the money you're sinking into Project Constellation. We can't let the Reds beat us!

What's so magical about the 2017 date? By 2013, China intends on launching its Long March 5 rocket. Unlike previous Chinese boosters, Long March 5 is a modular family of rockets which use cryogenic propellants. While the first Long March 5 will fly by 2013, it's reasonable to look at 2017 as the year when the heaviest, most powerful member of the Long March 5 family will fly.

In its heaviest variant, Long March 5 will offer similar performance to Delta IV Heavy. That is probably enough to fly a Shenzhou around the moon, similar to the Soviet Zond program. But it's a far cry from putting a human on the lunar surface and returning to earth safely. It serves the Chinese goal of national prestige, but does nothing for the goals of lunar settlement, science and exploitation.

Assuming that a Chinese lunar landing utilizes a heavy-lift rocket (which, NASA assures us, is necessary for going to the moon,) it will take several years to develop. Heavy-lift rockets are very difficult to cloak from foreign intelligence, because the facilities to build and launch these rockets are behemoth. This fact helped the CIA to produce remarkably-close estimates of the Soviet lunar program during the 60's. If China is to attempt a lunar landing by 2017 with a rocket in the mold of Saturn V, they'd better start development soon. But it's unlikely they'd launch such an outlandish program when they're still five years away from flying the relatively-puny Long March 5.

Claims of Chinese lunar prowess are often trumpted up by supporters of Project Constellation. The idea is that we need "Apollo on Steroids" so we can prevent Chinese monopolization of the moon. But there's no reason to believe that a program which molds itself after Apollo will be any less temporal. Apollo had the political will of a genuine Cold War behind it, and it could only manage six lunar missions before it was scrapped. Project Constellation will likely meet the same fate, if Ares V and Altair are funded at all. Even in Red China, the prospect of sustaining a Chinese equivalent to Apollo should be greeted with a large amount of skepticism.

China's manned space program has made some big strides over the last five years, but it is still plodding along at a slow flight rate with uncertain goals for the future. Any claim that China can beat America to the moon should be treated with a large amount of skepticism. The only way that will be reversed is if America insists on a fiscally-unsustainable and politically-unpopular approach to lunar exploration, which kills the American lunar effort and allows China to walk to the finish line.

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