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Fear Mongering the End of the Shuttle Program

By Taylor Marvin

Shuttle launch, 1988.

Shuttle launch, 1988.

At Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating has an article mourning the passing of the Space Shuttle. Unfortunately, instead of offering a balanced look at the costs and benefits of the US manned spaceflight program Keating instead uses Russian and Chinese goals in space to stoke familiar fears about American decline:

“The end of the space shuttle program is a big step back for the United States, and a giant leap forward for everyone else.”

Viewing competing space programs in zero-sum terms is a mistake, and Keating hugely overestimates the impact of manned spaceflight on national competitiveness. Similarly, his concerns about Russian and Chinese space goals are unconvincing:

“The Russian space agency’s more ambitious plans include a manned mission to the moon by 2025, potentially followed by an ‘inhabited station.'”

What makes the Russians’ ambitions for a moon mission any more credible than America’s? Post-Soviet Russia has a long history of publicly announcing the same kind of ambitious and expensive military or space programs the Soviets aspired to, but without the resources the USSR enjoyed. Russia, while possessing enviable technological and engineering human resources, faces huge problems gathering the necessary financial requirements for military development programs that are compatibly inexpensive compared to ambitious space programs. The troubled PAK FA stealth aircraft program is a good example of this constraint. Russian policymakers clearly perceive this program as vital to Russian security — certainly much more than a moon shot — but the program’s financial dependence on India suggests the PAK FA program will have a long and uncertain development. There’s a huge difference between publicly announcing ambitious space goals and actually possessing the technical and financial base to accomplish them, especially over decades long programs. The list of abandoned space programs is huge — the Soviet Buran shuttle and the American VentureStar program are good examples — and history suggests that sustaining funding for enormously expensive space programs that are only marginally related to concrete national interests is extremely difficult. During its peak year the US Apollo moon program consumed 2.2% of the federal budget, and there isn’t good reason to suspect that a modern moon program would be significantly cheaper. No nation on Earth currently produces a heavy-lift vehicle comparable to the Apollo Saturn-V, and the retreat to low Earth orbit after the 1960s means that much of the technology required for manned space flight beyond Earth orbit would have to be reinvented. There’s no reason to suspect the Russian government is serious about dedicating such a large portion of its chronically strained budget to this goal.

Keating is just as worried about Chinese ambitions in space:

“It launched its first manned mission in 2003 — becoming the third country to do so — and hasn’t sent a person up since 2008. But, unsurprisingly, its ambitions are enormous. Later this year, China plans to launch the first of three separate temporary space stations which will eventually lead to a permanent orbital station sometime around 2020 or 2022.”

Again, this is overly optimistic. While the Chinese space program certainly benefits from greater financial — and increasingly technical — assets than its Russian counterpart, this doesn’t change the fact that Chinese goals in space are extremely ambitious, and difficult. China’s inexperience in space and lack of developed ties to other nations’ space programs means that it will likely have to reinvent the decades of technical development and experience required for the US and Russian space station programs. While building a space station is much less difficult and expensive than a manned flight to the moon, it is stil technically challenging, and of uncertain practical value.

Keating’s other fears about the Chinese space program are similarly alarmist:

“In addition to its manned spaceflight ambitions, China raised eyebrows in 2007 with its test of an anti-satellite missile.”

This is irrelevant. Anti-satellite missiles share almost technology with manned spaceflight, and while China’s development of successful anti-satellite technology is worrying, it’s an issue with no relevance to the end of the shuttle program. Keating is scaremongering.

What’s interesting is that China’s growing manned spaceflight program likely actually reduces its threat to Western military satellites. China’s 2007 anti-satellite missile test was universally criticized for generating massive amount of debris in low Earth orbit, debris whose uncontrolled orbits and high speeds pose a serious danger to manned spacecraft. This danger is well understood, and is part of the reason why the US has refrained from anti-satellite missile tests since the 1980s. If China is serious about continuing its space program, it will have an incentive not to increase the amont of space debris that threaten all spacecraft, including its own. From the perspective of US military satellites, a Chinese civilian space program is a good thing.

The fundamental flaw of this article is that it doesn’t consider why nations pursue space programs. Even if China and Russia can muster the enormous financial and technological requirements for ambitious space programs, they do not have any real reason to. The US didn’t devote a significant portion of its government budget on the Apollo program for a love of science and exploration — it did it to outcompete the USSR and demonstrate to the international community that despite US failures in the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam the United States remained a strong world leader and dangerous adversary. In the post-Cold War world these incentives are greatly reduced. Russia and especially China have less expensive ways of demonstrating their national strength than decades-long, extremely risky space programs whose practical expected payoff is distant and low. Unfortunately for those entranced by the romance of manned space exploration (myself included), there is no reason to judge the lofty goals of foreign space programs to be any more credible than President Bush’s mostly forgotten plan to return to the moon. Like the US, China and Russia will likely continue manned space programs and will eventually accomplish worthy goals in space, but this doesn’t make these programs a threat.

The end of the shuttle program is a rare opportunity to re-examine the goals and benefits of the US manned space program. However, we shouldn’t let fears of American decline make this judgement for us. The US should only continue manned space flight if it returns real scientific and technological benefits, not out of fear of China.

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