NASA isn’t in serious trouble, but it has flat-lined.
NASA’s leadership in space exploration is what makes it one of the most inspiring and beloved agencies, but some feel that NASA has gotten stuck. It’s budget isn’t declining, but it’s not growing either. And if we’re not careful, other space programs are going to step up and fill the role of space exploration leader.
One up-and-coming contender is China. China’s space program is showing the same kind of explosive growth as its economy, said Chris Impey, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona, during an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross. That means it has grown roughly 10% a year for the past decade. While that amount is slipping a little and will likely slow down in the next few years, the bottom line is that China’s space program is expanding, and NASA’s is starting to flounder.
China makes its debut
It’s easy to forget about China when it comes to space exploration. It didn’t launch its first satellite until 1970, after the U.S. had already put several in orbit and even landed men on the moon. China didn’t even send a taikonaut (China’s word for astronaut) to space until 2003. And since the beginning of its space program, China benefited a great deal from Russian technologies, Impey wrote in his book “Beyond: Our Future in Space.” For example, China use to buy old Russian rockets and reverse-engineer them.
That’s all changing quickly though.
“But now the Chinese are innovating and vaulting ahead,” Impey writes. “Their Long March rocket is original and has quickly eclipsed Russian rockets.”
And innovation is one of the most important things China has going for it, Impey said.
“And they’re actually — unlike the one of the stereotypes that they’re just sort of copying our technology — they’re actually innovating,” Impey says during NPR’s interview. “They have very young engineers in their space program — very keen, very well trained, very ambitious.”
It’s channeling that ambition into a laser-focused purpose: lunar exploration.
In 2013, China landed its Jade Rabbit rover on the moon.
It was the first time anything human-built had touched the moon’s surface in nearly 40 years. Since then, China has successfully tested several lunar orbiters and landers in hopes of sending humans to the moon, which it says it can accomplish by 2022. There’s even rumour of a collaboration between China and Russia to set up a lunar base.
“The real problem [in the US] is the lack of direction and commitment,” Jeffrey Plescia told Space.com. “I think, like others, that the moon is key to understanding how to live and work in space and explore the solar system.”
China is also building its own space station. Called the Tiangong 2 space lab, its first piece could be launched as soon as next year, followed by a manned crew to make contact with the lab. The main module of the lab will launch in 2018, and the whole thing could be finished as soon as 2022.
That’s around the time the International Space Station, which NASA is intimately involved with (and China is not), is planned to be decommissioned, then allowed to fall to Earth and burn up. As of right now, there are no plans for a replacement.
Experts estimate that China spends about $US2 billion on its space program every year. It’s difficult to draw direct comparisons to NASA’s roughly $US18 billion budget because of currency conversion, but it’s clear that even though they are investing heavily in space, China is still spending a much smaller amount of its overall GDP on its space program than the US (based on 2014 GDP, the US spends about 10%, while China spends less than 1%).
The country’s new launch facility on the island of Hainan is almost open for business.
A space conspiracy?
It’s pretty clear US officials are wary of China’s progress in space. NASA personnel are prohibited from working with the Chinese, and the Chinese can’t visit any NASA building without explicit permission and a waiver. This is the same policy that has blocked China’s involvement with the International Space Station.
The US’s caution isn’t entirely unfounded. China’s space program is essentially run by the military. The People’s Liberation Army has a huge influence over the program. The US military has also been involved with NASA, but not at the same level that China’s military is.
A US Department of Defence report suggests that China might be working on an anti-satellite weapon designed to jam U.S. navigation satellites.
Some experts, including Paul Spudis, a senior staff scientist at the Planetary Institute, think that’s why China is so interested in the moon.
“China’s Chang’e 2 spacecraft moved in and out of lunar orbit, went to an L-point [a gravitationally stable Lagrange point], loitered there, left” and then it flew by an asteroid, Spudis told Space.com. “All of that activity is classic space control. If you combine these activities with their anti-satellite warfare experience, it’s pretty clear what they are up to. I think that’s their real agenda.”
In other words, it looked a little like a military drill in space.
Still, not everyone thinks that’s China’s ultimate goal. Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said people have misunderstood China’s intentions when they assume the nation is pursuing a space war strategy.
Kulacki told Space.com that “the strategic objective of Chinese space policy is not to exploit asymmetry between China and the United States, but to end it.”
There’s no way to know for sure right now. We’ll be interested to see if China can stick to its aggressive lunar landing timeline though.