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Space Odyssey

Jun 12, 2024

China Space.png

China is planning 100 launches to send more than 300 spacecrafts into the orbit in 2024. The Chang’e-6 lunar mission is one of the100 planned launches this year. It aims to return with samples from the far side of the moon. (Image: CCTV)

China has in recent months enjoyed a remarkable run of good luck with one dazzlingly successful space launch and safe landing after another. Beijing operates a vigorous space station program with regular exchange of crew and the add-on of modular additions, and its unmanned lunar excursions have broken new ground in operating on the far side of the moon. 

No country that undertakes the audacious program of sending rockets into space, manned and unmanned, can operate in a risk-free environment. Good science and engineering can go a long way to mitigate risk, but given the daunting physics and human imperfection, inadvertent misfortune and accident in space exploration is a question of when, not if. 

The U.S. experienced a golden age of space exploration, marked by the unparalleled achievement of assembling a manned lunar program within a decade at a time when computers were still in their infancy. But the U.S. has also had some hard knocks, both in the run-up to the moon, and later on in two Space Shuttle disasters—one right after lift-off, another upon re-entry. 

The Shuttle shock has mostly abated, but NASA remains both rule-bent and under extreme pressure not to allow such mistakes to happen again. With the retirement of the Shuttle program, NASA has lacked the means to send astronauts to the ISS space station and has had to hitch lifts on Russia’s sturdy and reliable Soyuz capsules, and more recently on private craft. 

The entry of SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and other private outfits into the market has reinvigorated American space dreams, but watching space newbies test their wares is not for the faint of heart. 

For every successful launch, an explosive disaster lurks in the shadows, waiting to happen. 

Japan’s flagship H3 rocket failed on its first launch last year, and had to be destroyed after 14 minutes of flight, though a second launch was successful. Japan also lost a Space One rocket on March 13, 2024 when the Kairos rocket exploded right after liftoff. 

In January, Japan became the fifth country to land a craft on the moon. The “Smart Lander for Investigating Moon” or SLIM, lost power due to an awkward landing position, but was revived and is transmitting data. 

Japanese success stories don’t get much air-time in China, but every one of its failed space shots got fiery coverage on the CCTV evening news. 

Luckily, there have been no recent catastrophic failures involving manned missions. 

Last year, India became the fourth country to land on the moon with the success of its Chandrayan -3 lunar landing in August last year. 

The U.S. hasn’t landed a craft on the moon since 1972, though the much-delayed Artemis program is attempting to remedy that gap. According to its mission statement, Artemis is dedicated “to landing the first woman and first person of color on the moon.” 

That may be laudable politically, but it’s not science. Likewise, it's a deft mix of bilateral politics and deep pocket finance that guarantees Japan the first international seat on the Artemis lunar landing mission, as was announced by President Biden while hosting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in April. 

Overall, U.S. space fortunes have dimmed, and NASA in particular seems to be limping a bit. Part of this is U.S. politics, but there are also the growing pains inherent in testing new technology and coordinating a hybrid, decentralized system in which private industry plays an increasingly central role. And last but not least, part of it is just plain physics. It’s hard to launch rockets and operate in the forbidding vacuum of space, and it’s hard to return to earth, too. 

The space programs in the U.S. and Japan differ from China’s highly focused program in several ways. One significant difference is the big role now played by private companies in making rockets and space capsules. Another difference is the high-degree of transparency, and the relentless curiosity of a feisty free press that permits unflinching coverage, even fiery failures. 

The March 14, 2024 launch of the SpaceX Starship rocket, which stands 50 meters tall, was an embarrassing catastrophe or howling success depending on how you look at it. 

The first part of the flight went well enough: “The 165-foot-tall spacecraft sent home amazing views from this lofty perch” wrote U.S. space journalist Mike Wall. “We saw fluffy white clouds floating above glassy seas, and got peaceful looks at Earth's curving limb against the blackness of space.” 

But what happened next was nothing less than the flaming disintegration of the spacecraft! 

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Starship, the world’s most powerful rocket, lifts off from the SpaceX test site in Boca Chica, Texas on Thursday. (Photo: SpaceX)

SpaceX, run by Elon Musk, put a euphemistic spin on the big rocket flame-out, acknowledging that the spacecraft experienced about 50 minutes after liftoff something called "rapid unscheduled disassembly." 

What does that even mean? 

It means the ship got ripped apart at the seams, broken to bits and burned to a crisp, but "rapid unscheduled disassembly" is easier on the ears. 

Starlink, the corporate arm of internet satellites run by Elon Musk likewise put a positive spin on the disastrous flame-out, emphasizing the picture quality of its demise, “even while traveling at 27,000 km/h through a plasma field.” 

America’s state-run NASA, which is now neck-to-neck with China’s state space engineers in taking aim at a manned moon landing, likewise tends to be bullish in its prose. On December 8, NASA crowed on its website: “After 15 years and 1000 tests, Orion’s heat shield is ready to take the heat.” 

And take the heat it did. Shortly after that announcement, an unmanned Artemis craft successfully traveled to the moon and back. Successful, that is, until it reached earth’s atmosphere and almost burned up. 

What happened? 

According to NASA's inspector general, “the char loss issue creates a risk that the heat shield may not sufficiently protect the capsule’s systems and crew from the extreme heat of reentry on future missions…We saw liberation very early on Artemis I."  

“Liberation” is another one of those space euphemisms, here used to describe the heat shield shredding and shedding material into space, but at least NASA was frank in its final assessment: "We need to understand the root cause, if it's knowable." 

Meanwhile, over the same ill-starred time frame, China’s space program has been performing like a charm, and its string of technical successes have not gone unnoticed. 

  • China launches probe to far side of the moon, revving up space race. -NBC News
  • China launched an uncrewed lunar probe Friday that it hopes makes it the first nation to ever retrieve samples from the far-side of the moon. -USA Today
  • China launches a new crew to its space station, advancing toward lunar mission. -NPR
  • China launches four satellites on first flight of new Long March 6C rocket. -MSN
  • China launches moon probe as space race with US heats up. -CNN 

The U.S. media is quick to criticize China, but there’s not much to criticize in its off-planet activities, at least not so far. It is a tribute to China’s derivative but largely home-grown space program, forced by various political pressures to operate without the cooperation of space pioneer NASA, that it has done as well as it has done to get to the point where it has out-paced Japan and gotten Americans worried about who’s going to get to the moon next.

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