A new space race?

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2012 7:00 am

When Curiosity landed on Mars, I was interviewed by RTTV about it, and China’s plans on landing on the Moon. The interview’s online:

Like I’ve said before: I’d like to see us cooperating more internationally, and I fear a new space race with China might be good for funding in the short run, but terrible in the long run. We spent a lot on getting to the Moon – and don’t get me wrong, we gained a huge amount from it – but the effort itself fizzled quickly, leaving us with a space program that lacked vision and didn’t have big goals. As amazing as Curiosity is, I wonder if we would be putting people on Mars by now had the American government, and the people too, had the gumption to keep that technology moving forward.

Oh, what might have been…


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics, Space
MORE ABOUT: China, Curiosity, space race

Comments (21)

Links to this Post

  1. Ultraculture | Weekend Space Roundup | September 17, 2012
  1. RAF

    At the time of Apollo, it was, of course, “common knowledge” that it was a race with the Soviet Union, however, (at least I) we always expected to continue….that going back to the Moon was a “given”. That we would exploit the resources of the Moon…and then go on to Mars.

    I sincerely do not “expect” anything, anymore…

    If I sound pessimestic, well I am…

    Oh, but nice interview Phil….I liked your grin at the very end. :)

  2. MaDeR

    Why everyone in USA talks about Mars? Manned mission to Mars is orders of magnitude harder than Moon, and we even did not get back to Moon.
    Exhibit A: ISS. How often something breaks there? No repairmans on way to, on and from Mars, noooo sir!
    Exhibit B: project Biosphere. Recycling? What recycling?
    Exhibit C: Curiosity. They said rover have first ever device to measure radiation levels on surface to Mars. What, isn’t that something that had to be done long ago, if someone seriously want go to Mars? How many other things that should be done aren’t done yet?

    Crawl before walk, walk before run. In current state of affairs, manned mission to Mars would be suicidal stupidity. Go back to Moon first – permanently. THEN we will talk.

    Back on topic, I do not see any race. Chinese do their things in their own tempo, not in reaction to USA.

  3. Stephen Baxter wrote a fascinating alternate-history novel about that, called “Voyage”. The premise was: 1) JFK survives 1963 assassination attempt; 2) Apollo proceeds as planned; 3) Thanks to former Pres. Kennedy’s lobbying, U.S. commits to Mars mission by 1980; 4) NASA bends all efforts toward that goal; 5) We land on Mars in 1980 — but 6) No Pioneer, no Voyager, no Space Shuttle. (The launch vehicle is a Saturn V with SRBs attached.)

  4. James Evans

    Sigh…capitalism…turning EVERYTHING into a reckless, short-term competition rather than a patient, extended cooperation for centuries now.

    That comment goes for China and its revamped economy as well, but I’m sure that won’t stop the inevitable “Bllllaaaaaarrrrrgggghhhhh!!!!! China and Mao and communism and Stalin, and what’s Phil doing on Lefty News, and nice high-speed rail crashes there, Pinko, and how come you hate your country so much, and you got a better economic system, then why don’t you move to Shanghai and foist it on them, and BBBBBLLLLAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHH!!!!!!!”

  5. I’m a little confused by Phil Plait’s position. On the one hand, he says that Apollo paid for itself a long time ago, and that space exploration always pays for itself. On the other hand, he says he is against a new space race. Since Apollo was clearly motivated by a space race, and it paid for itself, what’s wrong with a new space race?

    In reality, our choice may be between competing to open up the High Frontier and not doing it at all, in which case I vote for competition!

  6. @5: Phil is against a space race. Apollo was a sprint that was quickly over. If we had taken our time, we could have had a more useful space station, then a permanent base on the moon.

    @3: I thought of “Voyage” right away too. Baxter pointed out that if NASA had been trying to promote a manned mission, they would have had to avoid successful robotic missions. In Baxter’s story, the solar system is almost completely unexplored in 1980. He may have been right, and given the two alternatives, I would clearly choose dozens of probes over one manned mission to Mars.

  7. Simon Edwards

    I have yet to see a well thought out reply to *why* we should gear up for manned space exploration. Assuming we can overcome crumbling bones and can still walk when we get to Mars, what is the ultimate goal? Colonize the solar system (moons of Jupiter etc); okay, so we do that then what? Say we increase our vehicle speed by a factor of 100, it is still going to take 600 years to get to the nearest star (no planets there that I’m aware of, let alone habitable ones). The only way I can see humans escaping this solar system are as chemicals that eventually get fed into a DNA assembly machine, incubated and then raised by C3PO type robots to establish a new race. The remaining population here in 2 billion years or so as the oceans boil away as Sol expands into a red giant, is going to have a tough time of it. In the meantime we should put our resources into fusion power so we can irrigate the Sahara and feed everyone and power all things electric. If anyone has better ideas, lets hear them.

  8. VinceRN

    The race I want to see is the race to make the private space industry viable and profitable.

  9. Pete Jackson

    For now, the ultimate goal I would think is to land astronauts on Phobos. To do that needs solving the problem of long duration space flight away from the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, which is the first step towards sending people to Mars anyway.

    You still need extra fuel to slow the spacecraft down enough to land on Phobos and then get back into heliocentric orbit from Phobos. But you avoid the enormous expense and danger of fighting the gravity of Mars itself. Phobos gravity is trivial to overcome for landing and take-off, but is enough to keep equipment from drifting away.

    On Phobos, astronauts are protected from cosmic rays by Phobos from below and Mars from above. By going into a deep crater, astronauts would be exposed to little or no black sky.
    Imagine having the huge globe of Mars above to observe for human excitement and discovery!

    Astronauts on Phobos could provide an enormous boost to Mars surface exploration. Right now, rovers like Opportunity and Curiosity are painstakingly slow at doing things since all decisions are made from Earth, typically a half hour away by round trip light-travel time. Imagine robots controlled from Phobos by astronauts, behaving with the speed available from real-time virtual reality.

    And sample returns from Mars become much cheaper since they need only be sent up to Phobos, where the astronauts can retrieve them and bring them all back with them when they return to Earth.

    All in all, I would think that using Phobos as a space station around Mars would provide a tremendous synergy between manned and unmanned space exploration!

  10. Cokehead

    VinceRN, for the private space industry, Low Earth Orbit’s the limit. They can do a great job resupplying satellites, the ISS, and taking rich people for short rides. There has never been an industry in human history that heavily invested in a risky venture that includes unknown risks. That’s what governments have to do. And right now, anything past LEO is risky and unknown.

    We’re going to have to build that, as it were.

  11. Peter Davey

    With regard to the question of manned space exploration, although it may be likely that there is life in Outer Space, at the moment we have absolutely no evidence that any exists. There may be factors we are yet unaware of.

    This means that, should the Earth, for whatever reason, be destroyed, or at least rendered unhabitable, every form of life currently known to exist would go with us.

    This implies a burden of responsibility approximately equivalent to having Mount Everest land on you.

    Within a short time – comparatively speaking – the Voyager spacecraft will be passing from the Solar System into Outer Space, where, assuming the craft survive the new conditions, they may carry on for millennia, carrying evidence of Man’s existence to the stars.

    However, the best evidence of the existence of the human race is the human race itself.

    A situation in which Earth, Mars, and Venus were all capable of sustaining terrestrial life would substantially improve the chances of that life’s survival against whatever the Universe could throw at it. All we need is the skill, resources, and determination.

    As the writer, W H Auden, once wrote: “History, to the defeated, may say “Alas”, but cannot alter or pardon”.

    Of course, if this planet is destroyed, and it turns out that it was the only location for life in the Universe, then there will be no history left to say anything.

  12. amphiox

    James Evans, don’t blame capitalism for short term competitiveness. That was around long before capitalism. If anything, the chain of causation is the other way around.

  13. Sajanas

    Sending humans anywhere is extraordinarily expensive, and I’ve yet to see something that could be done better by humans than by our deathless automatons. The price of a two way trip to Mars by humans could give us so many other robot missions to find out what is really worthy of direct human attention. And its not like the kind of research into getting robots to land on Mars, Titan, or a comet aren’t giving us any technological know-how too. Its a little different than you’d get from doing a manned mission, but its not like human missions are the *only* way to produce technological innovation.

  14. James Evans

    @amphiox:

    James Evans, don’t blame capitalism for short term competitiveness. That was around long before capitalism. If anything, the chain of causation is the other way around.

    Yeah, no doubt, and being that there are subsidized markets in our hybridized version of capitalism that I personally wish were subject to sobering realities of free trade, I’m obviously not a devoted opponent. Still, the external costs it causes as a modern economic system don’t get enough attention. And for certain societal needs (such as frontier exploration), it should be regulated more often and to a greater degree than its most vocal beneficiaries are willing to admit, if not outright abandoned.

  15. Trevor

    Well how about working with China instead of either a new “race” or ignoring them. Or if not China how about working wit Europe, Britain, Japan S. Korea, etc? There’s a number of rich nations with high engineering skills that could do this, so the trillions could be spread out among us.

  16. Nigel Depledge

    MaDeR (2) said:

    Why everyone in USA talks about Mars?

    Well, at a wild guess, I’d say it’s because the Moon has been done.

    NASA is the only organisation in the world that can say “been there, done that”.

    Manned mission to Mars is orders of magnitude harder than Moon, and we even did not get back to Moon.

    True, but so what?

    Overcoming the challenges of a manned mission to Mars would open up the entire solar system, at least in principle.

    Exhibit A: ISS. How often something breaks there? No repairmans on way to, on and from Mars, noooo sir!

    Counterexhibit A : Apollo used multiply-redundant systems. The same would necessarily apply to a Mars mission.

    However, your point is not so easily dismissed. Systems on a Mars mission would need to be designed to be fixable, and the mission would need to carry a boatload of spare parts.

    Exhibit B: project Biosphere. Recycling? What recycling?

    Yes, this is a challenge, and probably only limited recycling would be viable, but it need not be a show-stopper. After all, the ISS carries several months’-worth of supplies at a time.

    Exhibit C: Curiosity. They said rover have first ever device to measure radiation levels on surface to Mars. What, isn’t that something that had to be done long ago, if someone seriously want go to Mars? How many other things that should be done aren’t done yet?

    This is not a valid objection. Most of the radiation on the surface of Mars will be solar wind and cosmic rays, and we already know about these. A Mars habitat can be buried in the regolith, which would shield the occupants against most of the radiation. The bigger issue is radiation on the journey to and from Mars.

  17. Nigel Depledge

    @ Simon Edwards (7) -
    Two possible answers spring to mind:

    1. Why not?

    2. Because it’s there.

  18. Nigel Depledge

    Peter Davey (11) said:

    the Voyager spacecraft will be passing from the Solar System into Outer Space, where, assuming the craft survive the new conditions, they may carry on for millennia, . . .

    While they may indeed continue to drift for millenia, their RTGs only have about another ten or twenty years in them, so they will mostly be drifting as unpowered chunks of hardware.

  19. Nigel Depledge

    Sajanas (14) said:

    Sending humans anywhere is extraordinarily expensive, and I’ve yet to see something that could be done better by humans than by our deathless automatons. The price of a two way trip to Mars by humans could give us so many other robot missions to find out what is really worthy of direct human attention. And its not like the kind of research into getting robots to land on Mars, Titan, or a comet aren’t giving us any technological know-how too. Its a little different than you’d get from doing a manned mission, but its not like human missions are the *only* way to produce technological innovation.

    This may well be true, as far as it goes, but you are making a flawed assumption – that it is a zero-sum game. If the impetus were to exist to support a manned Mars mission, we may quite easily end up with more robotic explorers than we have now. As a previous commenter mentioned, probably the best way to investigate the solar system is a combination of manned and unmanned vehicles.

  20. Checking NASA’s actual budget… This year was the first drop in current or consistant dollars. It dropped by less than one billion to more than eighteen billion, where it’s going to stay for the next few years. Let’s be quite clear, $18B is not a small amount of money. Over a presidentiual term that’s $72B. Any claim that NASA is running short is nonsense. They have enough for their remit. What they lack is courage to stand up to everyone pushing them away from their remit, and towards business as usual pork-spending.

    The shuttle was a dismal failure and the entire space advocacy industry should cheer at it’s departure. Waiting in the wings we have the Falcon 9 Heavy, Dragon & Orion, and the VF-200 engine. America and NASA are better positioned for human space exploration than they have been since the 1960s. Quite frankly at this point the only think holding NASA back is it’s reluctance to admit that.

    And while Phil does well here, astronomer =/= rocket engineer, and I wish the press would stop confusing the two.

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