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It's a Two-way Space Race Now.

Dec 14, 2022

On December 4, China’s Shenzhou 14 spacecraft made a dramatic night landing in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia, marking the successful completion of half a year in space. 

The three astronauts, Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe stayed aboard the Tiangong Space Station long enough to hand the “keys” to a new crew that just arrived last week on the Shenzhou 15. During their six months orbiting the earth, the crew oversaw the docking of two new modules, greatly increasing the work area of China’s nascent space platform, and carried out three space walks as well. In terms of “firsts,” China still lags behind the path-breaking flights of U.S. and Russian space programs in their prime, but it is catching up quickly, and to date, its manned flights have been just a little short of flawless. 

Space exploration, once a spirited rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, has now become a two-way race between the U.S. and China. Recent years have seen advances in the space programs of both countries, and these advances have basically left Russia, the first nation in space, to languish in the cosmic dustbin of history. 

On November 16, the U.S.-designed Space Launch Booster (SLS) thrust an unmanned Orion capsule on a trajectory for the moon in its inaugural test flight as part of the Artemis program. 

The powerful new SLS rocket propelled its unmanned module to the moon and beyond, prepping for the crowd-pleasing “manned” flights which are proposed to put the first woman on the moon among other goals.  

The SLS was supposed to be an answer to Russia’s big Proton rockets and the legendary Saturn rocket developed for the U.S. Apollo program by Wernher Von Braun, but it’s not been an instant success. Indeed, the SLS, infamous for cost overruns and technical delays, has had considerable trouble even getting off the ground, with two televised launches scrubbed at the last minute due to hydrogen leaks earlier this year.  

The third time was the charm as the Orion module finally broke free of earth’s gravity for its maiden voyage around the moon. It’s behind schedule, but it is a not insignificant accomplishment, and it comes as a great relief to NASA which has already invested 44 billion to date. 

The Space Launch system, which costs four billion a launch, relies on dated Shuttle era technology, but unlike the Shuttle, it disposes of each rocket after one launch. 

Moon shots don’t come cheap, and already SpaceX has proved it can offer 2/3 the lift for one tenth of the price of the SLS, in part because it has invested deeply in reusable rockets. 

The unmanned Orion spinning around in space has provided some interesting photos of the dark side of the moon and even some live streaming (in which the earth, looking small and alone in the distant blackness of space) was in view. 

But the mission of the Artemis moon program as it has been publicized to date is solidly wed to politics, identity politics in particular, rather than science: “To put the first person of color and woman on the moon.” 

In contrast, the U.S. led International Space Station is nearing the end of its optimal shelf life, but it has proved itself a reliable orbital platform over the last decade. China was excluded from ISS participation by the ill-considered Wolf Amendment in 2011, and has finally got a kind of karmic revenge in the sense that the same amendment bars Americans from getting involved with the Chinese station. 

As for Russia, its space swagger is gone, even though it had been a vital part of the International Space Station until recently. The U.S. provided most of the oxygen, both in terms of funding, and the backup air supply on board, but the Russian section of the craft carried the thrusters necessary to correct a weakening orbit and maneuver the craft, so it was a true joint venture. 

Moreover, until the recent success of the SpaceX manned launches, the U.S. had no indigenous means of ferrying its astronauts to and from the station. 

The U.S. required Russian support in the form of Proton rocket launches that lifted Soyuz manned craft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan into space. NASA, once the undisputed leader in space exploration, especially during the heyday of the Apollo moon program, has recently seen its manned launch capabilities gone moribund after the retirement of the much troubled Space Shuttle. 

Meanwhile, China has been enjoying a smooth string of successes in space, though one needs to be aware that all space travel is dangerous and prone to unforeseen problems. 

To the extent that funding for China’s space program is allotted by central fiat is probably more efficient than the messy democratic haggling, corporate corruption and hometown favoritism that dog NASA funding, but autocratic bureaucracies have their blind points, too. 

The launch of Shenzhou 15 aboard a powerful Long March rocket and subsequently the successful docking (at a speed somewhere close to 20,000 mph) with the Tiangong space station is an accomplishment in itself. The arrival of the new crew, composed of Fei Junlong, Deng Qingming and Zhang Lu, was a public relations bonanza for China, which, for a few days, had six citizens in space at one time. 

The old crew, bodies unaccustomed to gravity after having been in space for half a year, had to be assisted exiting the airplane when they were greeted as heroes upon return to Beijing. 

The ISS for its part has been doing path-breaking science without much fanfare, including the recent milestones of the Cold Atom Laboratory that has been able to produce in space tiny bubbles of extremely cold gas, bringing temperatures low enough for possible quantum use in a way that could not be easily replicated on earth. 

Both the ISS and Tiangong have done visually-exciting spacewalks showing spacesuited humans floating upside down above the planet in dramatic fashion, and more such spacewalks, good for publicity and not without some technical importance, are planned. China has scheduled three or four upcoming spacewalks and has several dozen science experiments lined up, to be conducted in the recently-attached cylindrical science modules, Wentian and Mengtian.

Russia, once a giant in space exploration, has seen its role diminished both by funding and political will. Russia’s space agency has indicated it will phase out its cooperation with the ISS, but has nothing remotely ready to replace it. Likewise, its 1960’s Soyuz manned capsule, while an undeniably good piece of engineering and sturdy space workhorse over the decades, is likely to get less space time as new manned launch systems, such as China’s Shenzhou program and private industry in the U.S., most notably SpaceX, replace the duopoly that bureaucrats in Washington and Moscow once had on all space exploration. 

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