A New Space Race

Neil Armstrong (left) and Eugene Cernan (right) giving evidence to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology (22nd September 2011). The hearing was held to examine the strategic goals and priorities of America’s human space exploration program. (image: House Committee).

The launch of China’s first space laboratory, Tiangong-1, on 29th September was given wide coverage in the media. Commentators were quick to contrast the optimism and ambition of the Chinese space program with the pessimism that currently surrounds US efforts. The most damning assessment of the current state of NASA Human Spaceflight program was given on 22nd September 2011 by Neil Armstrong when testifying to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. About NASA’s current status he said: “We will have no American access to, and return from, low earth orbit and the International Space Station for an unpredictable length of time in the future. For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable”.

At the same hearing Eugene Cernan, the Commander of Apollo 17 and the last man to walk on the Moon, put the situation in a more strategic and patriotic light. In his testimony he stated: “We are seeing the book closed on five decades of accomplishments as the world’s leading space-faring nation. We need an Administration that believes in and understands the importance of America’s commitment to regaining its pre-eminence in space.” He went on to say: “The space program has never been an entitlement, it’s an investment in the future – an investment in technology, jobs, international respect and geo-political leadership, and perhaps most importantly in the inspiration of our youth. Now is the time to be bold, innovative and wise in how we invest in the future of America. Now is the time to re-establish our nation’s commitment to excellence. It is not about space – it’s about the country.”

Cernan’s view that a space programme should be about technological investment appears to be a one of the major drivers of the Chinese space programme. Professor John Zarnecki of the Open University, and a visiting professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, describing Chinese space ambitions to BBC News said : “There’s a sense of great optimism. It’s not driven so much by science, but by the desire to develop new technologies. The money is there, although it’s not limitless. And they’re taking it step by step”.

So are we in for a new space race? With America seeking to regain the high ground under pressure from China, the new kid on the block? Well, perhaps, but then again perhaps not.

A space programme, no matter how well funded and impressive it might sometimes seem, represents only a small fraction of a nation’s overall spending. Ralph Hall, the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, put the NASA budget in context, stating that it consumes: “less than one-half of one percent of federal spending – and human space exploration is about 20 percent of that”. However, despite its relatively small size NASA’s funding is under real pressure. And so it is difficult to believe that NASA can respond in the dramatic fashion that Eugene Cernan has called for. The fortunes of the Chinese and American space programs reflect the relative performance of each nation’s economy. It is hard to envisage the start of a new space race when one of the potential participants is so preoccupied with re-energising its domestic economy. In contrast, China’s economy is booming and there is no doubt that it has serious ambitions to become a major player in space exploration, whether the US likes it, or not.

A Long March-2 rocket carrying the Tiangong-1 space laboratory blasts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China’s Gansu Province, (Thursday, 29th september 2011). (image: China’s Xinhua News Agency)

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