Red Star in Orbit: China Learns from NASA's Mistakes

Can China, with only a fraction of the Gross National Product of the United States, actually beat out America in manned space exploration over the next decade and more? The answer is:  Yes.

Can China, with only a fraction of the Gross National Product of the United States, actually beat out America in manned space exploration over the next decade and more? The answer is:  Yes. Easily.

China's space program shows every sign of using reliable, mature and inexpensive technology, rather than bankrupting itself on showy but dangerous and vastly over-ambitious technology that the U.S. manned space program has relied upon for more than two decades with the Space Shuttle program.

The Space Shuttle was supposed to make space travel routine, cheap and safe. It did none of those things.  The Space Shuttle program originally dreamed of launching over a dozen space flights annually.  However, in reality, the program has only averaged roughly five flights per year, even before the tragic disintegration of the Columbia on reentry at the beginning of this year. Plus, far from being cheap, they always cost a billion dollars a flight.

Far from being safe, they have so far immolated 14 astronauts in two catastrophic disasters, the explosion of the Columbia in 2003 and of the Challenger in 1986. That is more than twice the total number of recorded dead cosmonauts from the Soviet/Russian space program since its inception 42 years ago.

Also, the space shuttle program cost so much money that it has leached resources away from developing any realistic alternatives. Today, ironically, the United States has less capabilities for manned space exploration than it did 31 years ago at the time of the last manned Moon mission, Apollo 18.

By contrast, China's space program is based on the older, vastly safer, more reliable and infinitely cheaper technology that the United States developed in the 1960s and the Soviet space program continued to use for its very limited but scientifically immensely important long-duration space station missions of the 1980s and 1990s.

China's Shenzhou class capsules have been developed slowly, thoroughly and conservatively.    As UPI science correspondent Frank Seitzen wrote on July 8, "Shenzhou began development in 1992 and so far has been launched successfully four times, the first of which was in November 1999. Each year, China has flown a new more capable, unpiloted variant of the ship."  The Shenzhou spacecraft, like the evolution of the Apollo moon-ships which grew out of the previous tried-and-tested Mercury and Gemini capsules, reflects an organic, orderly evolution from the earlier, more primitive designs it was based upon. "Slightly larger than its Russian counterpart [Soyuz], Shenzhou is constructed of more advanced materials and lighter component materials than the 30-year-old Soyuz." It also "has larger and more extensive solar panels than Soyuz."

And in the crucial area of astronaut - or as the Chinese would put it, taikonaut - safety, Shenzhou is actually far more advanced than the U.S. Space Shuttle program in protecting the lives of its crew. As Seitzen reported, the Long March 2F booster rocket "flies with an abort system that can blast the manned capsule free of the booster in the event of a launching mishap."  That kind of equipment could have saved the lives of the seven Challenger astronauts, had it been installed on the Shuttle program in the 1980s.  

The Chinese have also learned from their Russian mentors in giving priority to producing a stable, reliable and cost effective "big dumb booster." Their Long March 2E cargo booster, which has been amended to carry the manned Shenzhou spacecraft in its 2F class, is conceptually very similar to the Soviet/Russian Proton booster.  It is not a spectacular super-rocket that blasts its payload all the way to the Moon as the colossal Saturn Vs did 34 years ago. But then, even the United States can no longer build any Saturn Vs. Too many of the vital plans have simply been lost through simple bureaucratic incompetence.

What the Long March 2 provides is a solid, unspectacular work horse than can be cost-effectively produced in sufficiently large quantities to put crews into space on a regular basis and acquire the kind of crucial program experience and capability that the United States did with its 1965-66 Gemini program.

A cautious but highly competent and ever-developing "tortoise beats hare" design and testing philosophy has guided China's space program over the past decade. This indicates that continued incremental but ever more significant design evolution will lead to vastly improved performance and payload capabilities in the years to come.

Still, conventional wisdom maintains that China will find it a long road from putting a single taikonaut into orbit to fulfilling its dreams of trumping the United States and Russia with impressive orbiting space stations and an eventual moon base.  But conventional wisdom may very well be wrong.


Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International.  This adapted piece is used with the permission of UPI.