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…
[I've been holding off writing about the Chinese space launch due to prior commitments and also because I've been trying to gather my thoughts about it. I'm still not sure where I fall, so here are some of my feelings. They are, of course, subject to change upon better arguments and evidence. I'll note also not everyone thinks crewed exploration of space is important. To be clear: those people are wrong, and I have a list of blog posts explaining why.]
Last week, the Chinese launched a crew of three into space. Their destination: the Chinese space station Tiangong-1, which — for now — consists of a single orbiting module about 10 meters long by 3 across. The Shenzou 9 capsule carrying the astronauts (sometimes called taikonauts) successfully docked with the station on Monday — the first time the Chinese have docked a crewed capsule, making them only the third nation to have achieved this feat (after Russia and the US). Video from the event was posted on YouTube:
That’s pretty amazing — the docking was done by remote control from Earth, and appears to have gone pretty well. The crew is now aboard Tiangong-1, getting it set up.
Much like the International Space Station which was launched one piece at a time and assembled in orbit, it’s clear China plans on expanding Tiangong-1. Tiangong-1 is the first in a series of planned space stations by China.
I’ve been reading about China’s space efforts, and I have to say I am uneasy by a lot of it. My first impulse, as I’ve written before, is that space is open to everyone, and the more the merrier. I’ve also been vocal about the need to avoid a "Space Race" mentality: us versus them doing something first. The problem with that is that it isn’t sustainable. Once you win (or lose) you’re done. I think it’s the main reason Apollo scaled so far back after even the first landing, and why we didn’t continue on to build a moonbase, or at least the 2001-style orbiting space station.
On the other hand, we also need to avoid the been-there-done-that mentality as well. For one thing, the NASA that went to the Moon is literally no longer the NASA that exists today. We have different rockets, different technology, and most importantly different people, both in political office as well as in the NASA engineering departments. Sure, we went to the Moon in 60s and 70s, but it is literally impossible for us to go back at the current time, and will be for many years to come. That’s worth remembering.
I say this because Amy Shira Teitel has an excellent summary of the Chinese space program on her blog. It’s a repost from last year, but it covers a lot of the background of where we are. However, she makes a point I think needs discussing:
It could go two ways. Either China will become an ally like modern Russia, or it could become an adversary like the former Soviet Union…But China isn’t really a threat yet, at least not enough of one that NASA would enter into another space race.
I think we need to have a care here. Read More
On May 11, the phenomenal astrophotographer Thierry Legault took another amazing picture of the Sun (See Related Posts below for more of Thierry’s work that’s been featured here at the BA blog). Setting up his equipment in the south of France, he captured this truly magnificent shot of our nearest star… and when you finish picking your jaw off the floor, stick around, because your amazement isn’t done yet:
[Click to hugely ensolarnate.]
I know, right? That HUGE sunspot cluster is Active Region 1476, which has been blorting out some small flares, but nothing major. That’s a bit surprising, given how big and active the magnetic field is in those spots. Still, the cluster has grown to something like 200,000 km (120,000 miles) stem to stern, and that one big spot is 100,000 or so km (60,000 miles) across. Mind you, the Earth is about 13,000 km (8000 miles) across, so keep that in mind when you’re looking at it.
But there’s more to see! Including the reason Thierry took this picture in the first place…
So, what do you do with the rocket capable of lifting 130 tons off the Earth that’s requested of NASA in the Presidential budget for 2012?
Some Congresscritters in the US House have an idea. They want NASA to go back to the Moon.
A bill making this case was recently submitted to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology where it’ll be debated. I have no idea if it’ll get out of committee, let alone pass on the floor of the House.
But it’s interesting. The bill, HR 1641, states as its purpose:
To direct the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to plan to return to the Moon and develop a sustained human presence on the Moon.
Ah, that word, "sustained". It fills me with nachas, as my mom would say. Whenever I look at the Moon, every time, I wonder when we’ll go back.
HR 1641 lists many reasons to go back, and indeed hits the high notes of increased knowledge of science, developing advanced technology, improving our long-term economy, and inspiring young people.
But then it says this:
(10) Space is the world’s ultimate high ground, returning to the Moon and reinvigorating our human space flight program is a matter of national security.
(11) Technologies developed and sustained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s human space flight program, such as liquid and solid rocket propulsion, environmental and life support systems, and communications, navigation, and control systems are important to our military.
(12) China and Russia, understanding the economic and strategic importance of human space flight, have declared their intentions of colonizing the Moon and are advancing their lunar exploration plans.
(13) It is strategically important that the United States possess and maintain the capabilities of unfettered operation in the space domain, and not cede the space domain to other nations.
Yeah, well. It’s true that China wants to go to the Moon, and Russia may or may not have the wherewithal to do it, but I’m not happy with this being a motivation for us to go back. I don’t like the idea of using the dreaded "other" as an impetus for space exploration. We’ve done this in the past — the whole reason we went to the Moon in the 60s was to beat the Soviets — and look what happened there. Yes, we went, and it was magnificent, but as soon as political winds changed Apollo was canceled. Apollo 14 hadn’t even lifted off when the last missions were taken off the books.
Some space advocates call Apollo a "flags and footprints" mission: get there just to get there. That’s what a space race tends to do. Once you win, what then? Well, you’re done. You’ve won.
But when we go back to the Moon, it shouldn’t be a race. I want us to go back to stay. Get there, set up shop, figure out how to establish life there and then sustain it.
Over at the Planetary Society Blog, Emily Lakdawalla has posted some videos taken by Chang’E 2, a Chinese space probe that just entered lunar orbit in October. The engineering cameras were pointed in such a way that technicians on Earth could make sure things were working properly on board, but the videos give an added bonus: the beauty and surreal nature of a man-made object orbiting another world.
Here’s my favorite of the five:
You can see the engine nozzle there, and the Moon in the background. After the probe inserted itself into lunar orbit, it had to adjust the orbital shape and height (this is called trimming the orbit). It goes through a series of turns, then begins to fire the thrusters. You won’t see flames shooting out; the fuel it uses burns invisibly. But when the probe enters the Moon’s shadow (what some folks call the dark side of the Moon, a bit of a misnomer) you can see parts of the nozzle glowing with the heat of the fuel burning.
Very cool. I’m glad to see other countries exploring our nearest neighbor. The more people we have looking around, the more we learn about it. And all of us are potential partners in space, something I like seeing very, very much.