We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

China in space

There are reports China may launch its’ first manned spacecraft by as early as October 15th.

I fully expect the general media will not consider it a major story. They will be wrong. China is not going to park in Earth orbit for three decades like we have. Western complacency is up for a serious butt-kick. China is going to aim for the moon as soon as they can concievably do so.

Before you complain about how far behind their technology is, please note it is not technology that has kept us from colonizing the solar system the last thirty years. It is the iron triangle which has kept us here: NASA, Big Aerospace and Congress. Congress primarily looks on space as pork for the re-election. Big Aerospace sees it as a feeding trough. NASA chiefs see it as a means of turf expansion.

The whole system is bloated and risk averse. Getting people into space is a side issue from what really matters. Congress runs taxpayer funds through as many districts as possible. The government contractors want the most profit for the least possible amount of deliverables. NASA top management wants to minimize the risk of adverse media attention to their careers.

The end result is… three decades of next to nothing for our money but paper spaceships and imaginary engines.

Don’t tell me that NASA isn’t risk averse just because the bureaucracy missed a problem and lost a shuttle. We’ve lost fourteen men and women in spaceflight and three more on the pad in four decades of manned spaceflight. More aviators than that died in almost every single year at the dawn of flight whose centenary is but three months away. Individuals can accept risk and push boundaries forward rapidly; democratic governments cannot.

This is why the answer to the Chinese is not NASA and the Ministries of Aircraft Production (ie Lockmart and Boeing); it’s XCOR, Armadillo Aerospace, Scaled Composites, Bigelow Aerospace, TransOrbital and the rest of the small and the innovative. The ones who are ready to put their own lives and fortunes on the line.

As Ben Bova said many years ago: “The Meek shall inherit the Earth. The rest of us will have left for the stars.”

23 comments to China in space

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    Space and expansion are the best hope for liberty. We need new places for those who wish to escape the overwhelming statism and loss of liberty to go and create new, freer societies. The Earth is already divided up and there’s nowhere left to do that.

    I mean, if I said tomorrow that for $50,000, you could relocate to a Mars colony which was founded on libertarian principles, and that you could be part of its “Constitutional Convention” and contribute your ideas to the founding of its liberty–who among you wouldn’t go?

  • LB

    Alfred, you could drop the ‘libertarian principles, and that you could be part of its “Constitutional Convention”‘ stuff (sounds like more political foolishness to me-and frontiers aren’t to kind on political theorists) – and you’d still have a half a million in line for it.

  • The Chinese state is run by an awful bunch of thugs, but I will none the less be cheering their space effort on. (Also, go India).

  • I may have to accelerate my Mandarin studies.

  • TomD

    Perfect, nothing but good can come of it.

  • Russ Goble

    Our response should be this: 1. Space Elevator will be open for business in 2015. Get ready. 2. NASA posts a big sign that says: you want to go into space? No problem. Just let us know when and make sure you don’t crash over land. Other than that, the risks is all yours. Don’t let the Ozone hit you on the way out.

  • Jacob

    Why do you suppose that the lethargic, geriatric Chines state bureaucracy will have more success in space than the NASA bureaucracy ?
    Good luck to them but I don’t expect anything spectacular.

  • Dale Amon

    Because, my friend, they are not the least bit afraid of burying their mistakes. Remember the human waves in the Korean War? Pile the bodies high enough and you can accomplish a great deal and very quickly.

    Fatality rates on the level of Jamestown or the lost colony wouldn’t be enough to make the Chinese bat an eye. They’d just load up another rocket and send a new batch of volunteers. They’ve got billions of them and they know how to use them for State purposes.

  • Jacob

    I thought you need some brains, some innovation, some enterpreneurship, some brilliant, nimble, dedicated individuals with a vision not just state power and recklessness.
    I mean: fatalities and forced “volunteers” are not the most important ingredigents of a daring and successful space program.

  • Chris Josephson

    I love the idea of what we can do with the next frontier. However, I don’t want to pay for it. At least, not until we have paid for the cost of the war we’re currently in (quite a few years to go).

    I’d like to see some private companies enter into a partnership with NASA. The companies would put up most of the money. They would get the use of existing facilities and personnel.

    I actually like what the Russians have done with the space station. They allowed people willing to
    pay big bucks the opportunity to travel in space.

    I’d like to see more ways to take the costs off our shoulders. There are some very wealthy people on this planet. I’m not against taking mucho bucks from them in exchange for a ride in space.

    Additionally, perhaps we could sell ad space on the shuttle? Anything to take the costs away from us.

    It sounds crass and crude, I know. Some are horrified that we’d dirty ourselves for money. We should care only for the pure science.

    The science will get done a lot faster if we can think of creative ways to get people to pay for it. (Other than the taxpayers, that is.)

  • Dale Amon

    My solution to NASA is to split it up. Drop the space science into a University Consortium; split off the old NACA for aviation research; create an ISS Port Authority to run the station; hand the shuttle’s over to a private company and tell them they had better be purchasing new machines because the subsidy is going to drop to zero over ten years.

    Eventually the ISS will either rot away from mis-management or be bought outright (Virgin Space Stations anyone?) and turned into a money maker.

    NASA is the problem, not the solution.

  • Dale Amon

    Jacob: there is more than one way to do anything. Totalitarian systems can harness an enormous amount of labour and lives with no thought about efficiency. That is why they can be very dangerous.

    I’ve often suggested that had WWII in Europe lasted until 1950, the Nazi’s would have been using spaceplanes to bomb New York. They *were* on the drawing board you know.

    Russia gave the US a good run for the money and one easily have gotten to the moon first without the Apollo program. This was unfortuneate because that same program set commercial space back 30 years. Commercial space could not have beaten the Russians to the moon. It would have taken 15-20 years longer to get there, but we would have spaceports there by now. That is the difference.

  • veryretired

    The basics of near Earth travel have already been done. The replication of that science is certainly within the grasp of the Chinese, and others.

    The urgent question is what will China put into orbit. If it is weaponry, the scenario darkens. If the effort is for communications and prestige, fine.

    Don’t expect the media to be invited to watch every aspect of the effort, though. We’ll get the official photos of any successful launches, but not the missteps and failures. Only a free society is strong enough to expose its flaws as well as its triumphs.

  • Dishman

    Jeez, it’s only rocket science. The Chinese know it’s fundamentally possible. They’re not on the bleeding edge of technology. There are people in the US financing space programs out of their own pockets. It’s no longer either very hard or very expensive.

    The Chinese engineers I know are competent and motivated (by money). I know at least one who routinely works 70 hour weeks because he wants to.

    They don’t even need to force anyone to fly. Seriously, how many of us would be willing to face a risk like Jamestown for a chance on a new world? Would you take a free space flight if there was a 20% chance of death? I sure would, on both counts.

  • Scott Hillis

    There hasn’t been anything firm about Chinese plans beyond orbiting the Earth and sending out an unmanned lunar probe, and I am frankly highly skeptical they will attempt anything more ambitious.

    Their manned spaceflight program is possible only because they are squeaking by with the barest minimum in technology. They have basically ripped off the Russian’s dated Soyuz design and the capsule is so cramped, the taikonauts have to be fairly short, like under 1.7 metres (5’6″) or something.

    Beijing is also no longer immune from public opinion as well. They are thuggish and insular, but they would not be able to hide any catastrophic failure of the manned mission. I have no doubt they will only announce the mission once it has returned successfully, but any failure of either the launch vehicle or re-entry capsule would definitely get out quickly, at the very least from the U.S., which would certainly be monitoring the launch and progress of the mission. Instead of steeling their resolve to get people in space, a disaster would be ignored as much as possible and the project indefinitely shelved.

    Another concern is the cost of the program. China is already running a record deficit this year that, while considered manageable, is being watched for signs of increase. Economic and business growth is priority number one for Beijing, and anything that would threaten the perception of China as a good place to do business would be knocked back. I assume the space program, with its tight military links, is covered under military spending and may appear off-budget. But nonetheless, these things are costly, even if you are using 40-year-old technology and cheap labor. The economy is growing fast but rests on a rickety foundation — the banking system is insolvent, unemployment is soaring, and corruption is endemic. This has all been under control so far but if a financial crisis ever strikes, you can bet the space program will be one of the first things to go.

    Finally, apart from the technology, China’s approach to its space program is hopelessly outdated. That is to say, while the U.S. is now on the cusp of a boom in private and commercial space exploration, the Chinese are still stuck in –indeed they are totally wedded to — a top-down, centralized, state-controlled effort. If you think NASA has a dearth of creative, bold ideas, these guys are 10 times worse. Let them have their ponderous, unimaginative bureaucracy. Hopefully, by the time they get around to shooting for the moon, we’ll be playing “Doom IV” with John Carmack at his summer getaway on the Sea of Tranquility!

    Its great that China will send a man in space. Let them have their day of jubilation and be rightfully proud. But I don’t think we should be expecting much more, or be worried that they’ll get a viable Mars or moon mission in motion any time soon.

  • Joe

    The best result from this will be if the Chinese aim is for a moon or interplanetary mission asap. The majority of their efforts would then be locked into a (mostly) non-military goal and it would give the “free” world a good kick up the backside to get out and join in those space race aims!

  • It would be ironic for freedom-seeking Chinese to escape communism by settling the Red Planet.

  • Marcus Lindroos

    This is only so much speculation. The *current* Chinese space program is clearly less active than even the European and Japanese efforts if you count the number (& size) of payloads launched into orbit! The same thing becomes apparent when you examine their current Shenzhou schedule, which has been “stretched” over nine years which suggests a basic lack of funding. If I remember correctly, the *only* Chinese space launch in 2001 was a single unmanned Shenzhou test!! They have to do a lot better than that to reach the Moon.

    Dale’s analysis apparently assumes the Chinese Communist party (or some other totalitarian government) will remain in power for decades, and that the economy will grow to such an extent that the Chinese can afford to increase their space budget without sacrificing military etc. programs. Both assumptions appear questionable, e.g. an examination of the Chinese space program reveals surprisingly little apparent growth (measured in terms of launch rates & payload size) since the late 1970s. I note that military opposition was one reason why the Soviet manned lunar program foundered.

    Now, if the Chinese would announce they are working on a fully reusable rapid-access-to-space plane for military purposes, *that* would be a different story…


  • Jacob

    “Now, if the Chinese would announce they are working on a fully reusable rapid-access-to-space plane for military purposes, *that* would be a different story… ”
    We have to assume that anything the Chinese do in space has a military purpose. They would never do anything if it didn’t somehow enhance their power. Stop dreaming about science or exploration. And of course – don’t expect them to announce their military purposes publicly.
    After all, the race between the US and Russia in space was also about military power hiding behind science retoric.
    Military power isn’t an obscene concept, it’s something closely related to survival,
    Maybe governments have failed to colonialize space because it, in no way, enhances their power on earth?
    I don’t expect the Chinese to be an exception.

  • Dale Amon

    Chinese commentary has often indicated an interest in the moon. They may not be moving fast but they are moving and little things like dropping a rocket on the outskirts of a Chinese village don’t slow them down all that much. The Chinese, in my opinion, have two goals in space; 1) Neutralize US space assets. 2) The moon.

    Yes, they are liberalizing and at the current rate might even become a liberal state in another generation or three. At present they are probably more like Nazi Germany (without the pogroms) or Mussolini’s Italy than Stalinist Russia. They have actually have some private sector, but wealth is still martialed by the state for state purposes.

    It may well take them 10-20 years to get there (I did say they weren’t going to hang around in Earth orbit for thirty), but I doubt NASA will get out of Earth orbit in that length of time either. I don’t mind that. I’d prefer they just wither away anyway. They are only a hindrance.

    The only ones who really seem aimed that way are the commercial space companies and the Chinese. I’d personally put my money on the commercial spacers to win.

  • Dale Amon

    BTW, for any casual readers… I’m having fun being opinionated on this item, and will take this time to introduce you to Marcus Lindroos whose opinions on space topics are also well founded in knowledge. We go back a long way together, into the pre-history of the net.

  • Marcus Lindroos

    > After all, the race between the US and Russia in
    > space was also about military power hiding
    > behind science retoric.
    > Military power isn’t an obscene concept, it’s
    > something closely related to survival,
    > Maybe governments have failed to colonialize
    > space because it, in no way, enhances their
    > power on earth?

    Yes, this probably explains why the Soviet military leaders such as Marshal Ustinov were largely opposed to the lunar program. There is, of course, the propaganda aspect.

    I guess Dale’s lunar scenario would be more plausible once the Chinese economy has grown to such an extent that a lunar “stunt” does not divert significant resources from other projects. But I still fail to see how the Chinese are going to colonize the Moon using the same basic expendable launch vehicle & spacecraft technology as the Soviets did, 30 years ago… OK, Dale might object that they will move on to reusable spaceplanes at some point. But the current Long March/Shenzhou infrastructure certainly isn’t very impressive.

    > I don’t expect the Chinese to be an exception.

    A communist is a communist, right? If the Soviets failed, why should we assume the ChiComs somehow will manage to create a booming economy to sustain truly ambitious human space exploration and colonization…? Dale mentions privatization initiatives, but I think too much economic liberalization will translate to greater political freedom before long. At this point, any extravagant manned space exploration plan will be rejected by Chinese scientists and democratically elected politicians…


  • The Snark Who Was Really a Boojum

    “Maybe governments have failed to colonialize space because it, in no way, enhances their power on earth?
    I don’t expect the Chinese to be an exception”.

    Uh, did you notice the way that both the Gulf Wars turned out. There were a number of factors that went into that but the fact that space power trumps air power and that we had a better satellite system is near the top of the list. There are other ways, both direct and indirect in which space power matters as well most of which add up to “High ground wins!”. More indirect but useful is the fact that Space colonies may provide useful access to mineral resources, solor power via satillite, and room for an expanding population to live in (Don’t think the Chinese, Japan or India haven’t considered that last one!). So don’t worry on that score – there’s plenty of military utility in being a spacefaring power and I’d
    recommend “High Ground” by General Graham or “Confrontation in Space” by G. Harry Stine for anybody who thinks otherwise! ^_~