Saturday, September 27, 2008

Space Race 2: Electric Boogaloo

Well, still feeling ranty, so let's stay on the China vs. USA theme for another post, shall we? Let's go back to space, where Chinese astronauts are currently orbiting Earth aboard the Shenzhou VII after blasting off from a remote desert site on Thursday. The most important part of the mission was accomplished today when Zhai Zhigang made the first Chinese "footprint in space" slipping out of the orbital module for a spacewalk or extravehicular activity (EVA). Following my last post about growing Chinese power, this is an important step in the development of the Chinese space program as they hope it will help them master the technology for docking two orbiters to create China’s first space station in the next few years, as well as to put a man on the moon in 10-12 years. As if to magnify the glaring difference in the trajectories of the two powers, the same day of the Chinese blast off saw law makers in the US take an important step to ensure any kind of American presence in space beyond 2010.

US lawmakers in the House of Representative passed a funding bill in which was buried an extension of NASA's exemption from the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, or INKSNA. The extension of the waiver is necessary for the US to continue to purchase flights from Russia aboard their Soyuz capsules, important as they will be the only vehicles capable of visiting the space station once the life of the shuttle fleet is reached in two years time. The three year lead time before 2011 is necessary as that is how much time it takes the Russians to build the crafts. The Senate still needs to pass the bill before it goes before the president to be signed. Of course the bill has become much more contentious in light of the recent Russian-Georgian conflict and reassertment of Russian power in other areas. Worry over the 'flight gap', the time between shuttle retirement and the Orion capsule replacement begins operational flight in 2015, has also caused NASA to consider pushing back shuttle retirement plans. However, this option brings with it 1-in-8 odds of losing a shuttle and crew if it adds 10 flights after 2010 (2/year until 2015) according to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

The only other option is to hope for a private-sector company to come up with a third alternative. Heck, innovation and a thriving capitalist system used to go hand in hand. Even if capitalism is in it's death throws, maybe some of that innovation remains. NASA allocated almost $500 million between now and 2010 to support California-based SpaceX and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Kistler, winners of the first round of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, as they develop new spacecraft that could bring supplies and crews to the space station. Unfortunately, SpaceX has taken three swings at launching into space and seem to have struck out, with their last test failure coming August 2nd with a payload that included a couple NASA satellites and one for the Department of Defense. Did I mention it was also carrying the ashes of James Doohan, Scotty from Star Trek? Rocketplane Kistler, besides having a silly name, didn't even get to the launch phase, as they missed deadlines and had the funding pulled in October 2007. Two other companies, Virginia-based Transformational Space and the Canadian-American Planetspace venture, are getting free advice from NASA on their own spaceship development efforts. Don't forget about founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin or Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic either.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are moving steadily forward. After their first manned space flight in 2003, they sent up another crew in 2005, both missions were successful. Perhaps the success has become a little too expected as the only glitch of this third mission came via the Xinhua News Agency who posted an article on its Web site describing a successful launch hours before the rocket even left the ground. The Chinese space progress has been described as a sustained, methodical effort, which seems to be the trademark of much of the rest of China's progress over the past decade. Like clockwork, they've begun, made inroads, then eventually passed the US in most every field from the Olympics to pollution. Their target date for reaching the moon roughly coincides with the plans for NASA's objective of returning in 2020 as part of the Constellation program. The stars seem to be aligning for a new space race a la the 1960's USA vs. USSR that many of us have only read about. Perhaps it'll be enough to light a fire under the American spirit of competition, otherwise China will soon have the lead in space too.