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Posts tagged ‘space’

Understanding the Space Race

By Taylor Marvin

Image via Wikimedia.

Image via Wikimedia.

In late January Iran made the startling announcement it had successfully launched a monkey into space. Claiming to have sent the monkey on a twenty minute suborbital flight, the launch was showcased as a demonstration of the Iranian regime’s technical ability. But international observers quickly noticed that the monkey recorded entering the capsule didn’t resemble the one showcased after the flight, an embarrassing inconsistency the Iranians chalked up to a botched photo release.

Deception aside, this story is a reminder that the drama of space exploration, genuine or faked, remains a powerful tool for building national prestige. At a time of enormous sanctions-imposed economic strain, Iran claims its recent test flight is a prelude to one day sending a human into space. Human spaceflight ambitions aren’t limited to political-outcast Iran. In 2003 China became the third country to send a human into space, and plans to send a taikonaut to the Moon by at least 2020. India has also articulated tentative ambitions for its own crewed space program at some point in the future.

But despite the growing number of nations expressing space ambitions today’s achievements in crewed spaceflight still fall short of the Space Race, the famed Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union that saw the world’s first satellite launch, first human in space, and, climactically, the Moon landings. This modern shortfall fits the broader pattern of the post-Space Race era: after the the American Apollo lunar landing program ended in 1972 the practical ambitions of crewed space programs, in contrast to contemporary forecasts, dramatically declined.

Clearly, high-profile achievements in space remain an alluring goal for prestige-minded governments. But any framework explaining why governments chose to invest in civilian space programs must also explain why no human has ventured beyond Earth orbit since 1972. Did space exploration become less prestigious after the end of the Apollo program, or did the conditions that precipitated the Space Race somehow fundamentally change? How do today’s aspiring space powers like Iran fit into this framework?

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface and into history. Optimistic observers celebrated the Apollo 11 landings as the birth of a new era in human exploration. Apollo would be followed by further, far more ambitions crewed exploratory programs – Moon bases, Mars landings, and crewed flybys of Venus filled the dreams of NASA planners. But instead of heralding a new beginning, today the Apollo program is seen as the end of an era. New budgetary realities dawned, and the US and USSR restricted their crewed space programs to Earth orbit. Today, 44 years after Apollo 11, the ambitious dreams of crewed missions beyond the Moon have not materialized.

Perhaps depressingly, this dramatic shortening of ambitions isn’t puzzling, because the Space Race was never really about exploration at all. Instead, the triumphs of Sputnik, Vostok, and Apollo were driven by the cold cost-benefit analysis of hardened Cold Warriors. Crewed space programs are long-term projects that require massive, front-end investments with no guarantee of success – national governments do not invest in them for idealistic reasons. Consequently, governments that elect to pursue crewed space programs perform sophisticated cost-benefit analysis before embarking on them. These costs and benefits move together depending on a program’s goal: more ambitions programs will cost more, but can intuitively be expected to return a greater boost to national prestige and international standing.

This cost-benefit analytical framework is the key determinant of whether governments elect to fund ambitious crewed space exploration. The most obvious benefit of human spaceflight – which captures public attention in a way uncrewed exploration does not – are heightened domestic pride and international prestige; other benefits can include technical advancements and economic stimulus in strategic science and engineering sectors. Both an increased sense of nationalistic pride among domestic audiences and prestige on the world stage is a valuable good for governing regimes. However, the value policymakers assign these prestige-driven benefits is not decided in a vacuum. The practical value of marginal gains and losses of national prestige is driven by politics. Unpopular leaders facing domestic unrest will benefit more than secure ones from increased national pride among their selectorate. Similarly, international prestige is more valuable for states facing a hostile world system than an unthreatening one.

The costs of crewed space programs are obvious, but vary in nonintuitive ways. First, some objectives are more expensive to pursue than others. Secondly, some of the technologies required for crewed space exploration have military applications; particularly, rockets. These “dual-use” technologies allow policymakers to clear civilian space programs’ technological barriers with military development they would fund anyway, reducing the dedicated cost of the program.

If the decision to heavily invest in civilian space programs can be understood as a cost-benefit calculus, the uniquely dramatic achievements of the Sputnik-through-Apollo era must be explainable by a similarly unique confluence of inputs. This appears to be the case. The US-Soviet space race was the unique product of a bipolar, ideologically divided international order and transient period of technological development that allowed civilian space programs to heavily leverage military necessities. The Space Race ended when these costs and benefits diverged. After the Apollo program ended the expected investments required for further ambitious civilian human spaceflight achievements grew, while the extent these prospective achievements’ prestige would contribute to national security fell.

First, the benefit side of the equation. The Cold War divided the world along ideological lines, with the twin Soviet and US-led blocs surrounded by a periphery of nonaligned states. In this bipolar system each opposing bloc sought to favorably shift the balance of power by attracting ideological allies. This made national prestige enormously important. The US and USSR both sought to attract unaligned nations to their respective camps by demonstrating the military and technological superiority of their system, superiority that was seen as evidence of eventual victory.

John Glenn aboard 'Friendship 7', 1962. NASA image via Wikimedia.

John Glenn aboard ‘Friendship 7’, 1962. NASA image via Wikimedia.

Spaceflight was a vital arena of this competition for prestige. News of space achievements, President Kennedy argued in a 1961 speech, had a powerful impact “on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” Importantly, these demonstrations were understood not only as peaceful achievements, but also as PR-friendly proxies for military prowess. Americans greeted the unexpected launch of Sputnik with something like panic, realizing if the Soviets could put a satellite in orbit, they could do the same with a nuclear warhead.

Second, the cost. Space Race-era programs were enormously expensive; at its height NASA funding consumed over four percent of American federal spending. However, the era’s crewed space programs benefited from a unique synergy between civilian and military technological development. The new technologies required to put the first men in orbit – powerful rockets, dependable guidance systems, and heat shields that allowed a spacecraft to survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere – were the same developed in the quest to construct nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Early nuclear weapons, particularly thermonuclear devices, were heavy objects that required powerful rockets to deliver to their targets. These rockets were easily adapted into civilian launch vehicles: President Eisenhower once explicitly noted that the military rocket engines required to deliver nuclear warheads were also “so necessary in distant space exploration.”

Much like the ideological rivalry between the US and USSR made civilian prestige projects a determinant of the balance of power, the military rivalry between the two superpowers and emerging awareness of the primacy of ICBMs in nuclear war made these technological developments top priorities. As deployed ICBM numbers rose the technologies required to put men into space were materializing, regardless of the value policymakers assigned exploration. It is difficult to overstate the role dual-use military developments played in allowing the early achievements that opened the Space Race.

This dual-use synergy allowed US and Soviet policymakers to leverage technology already in development for their civilian space programs. But importantly, there is no inherent reason why the technological requirements of civilian space programs and the cutting edge of military development must align. Indeed, this dual-use synergy was transient, and began to break down by the late Space Race. Medium-lift liquid fuel rockets similar those powering early ICBMs are the dominant technological hurdle only in comparatively primitive civilian space programs. Once these rockets matured new hurdles less related to military requirements began to appear – for example, the heavy-lift Saturn V rocket and lunar lander vital to the Apollo program had little technological relevance to military armaments.

By the mid-1960s the preconditions that spurred the Space Race had clearly changed. Funding for crewed space exploration evaporated in both the US and USSR. In America, once it became clear that the Apollo program would be a success NASA’s budget as a percentage of federal spending fell precipitously. The final Apollo missions were cancelled, as was the Apollo Applications Program, intended to adapt existing Apollo hardware to ambitious new missions. Likewise, the Moon bases and crewed missions to Mars early space planners and science fiction authors judged just around the corner never materialized.

Why? Space achievements had not grown less prestigious. To be sure, Americans lost interest in the Apollo Moon landings as the novelty wore off, but that does not mean unprecedented achievements would not have remained a powerful tool for building national prestige. Instead, the value policymakers placed on the benefits of national prestige had changed along with the international order.

The Space Race was conceived during some of the hottest years of the Cold War – Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, five years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. But by the time the Apollo program landed astronauts on the Moon, the dynamics of the Cold War were changing. The Nixon-era détente between the US and USSR relaxed tensions, making it harder for policymakers to justify expensive prestige projects on balance of power grounds. But of course, détente did not last, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and President Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric made the 1980s one of the most dangerous decades of the Cold War.

Soviet 'Buran' spacecraft, 1988. Via Wikimedia.

Soviet ‘Buran’ spacecraft, 1988. Via Wikimedia.

But if Cold War tensions were so high, why did another civilian Space Race fail to materialize during the 1980s? Clearly, the prestige motivation had not vanished. President Reagan, eager to regain the American national prestige he perceived as lost in Vietnam and Carter-era malaise, pushed for an aggressive Space Shuttle launch schedule that contributed to the Challenger disaster. But despite heightened Cold War tensions, the political benefits of ambitious space spending were now lower. Spaceflight as a whole were no longer novel, making it arguably less impressive and high-profile. Adversaries’ achievements also became less threatening. Unlike during the opening days of the Space Race, Americans could not spin Soviet space achievements as a threatening aspect of a “missile gap” because by the 1980s ICBMs were a proven, stockpiled weapons technology.

But the cost side of the ledger was what shifted the most. First, the dual-use synergy between civilian and military space technological development largely vanished. Unlike the advances in rocketry of the 1950s and 1960s, by the 1980s the technical requirements of civilian and military space programs had diverged, making broadly dual-use technologies rare. Staged rockets that powered ICBMs were now mature technologies, and later missile development worked towards improved accuracy and increased survivability. Expanding crewed space exploration beyond the Moon would require major progress in novel propulsion technologies, life support, system reliability, and automation. All of these advancements had only tangental military relevance. Instead, the military space programs of the post-Apollo era brought research funding to technological fields unconnected with crewed spaceflight. The Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, an ambitious ballistic missile defense scheme, focused research on laser and missile interception technology. None of these military projects spurned major advancements in dual-use technologies that could be leveraged for new, ambitious crewed space programs. This remains largely true today.

Secondly, the post-Apollo space establishment suffered from a lack of clear, obvious goals. This was not the case for the classic Space Race: first, put a satellite in orbit; then, a man; finally, the Moon. But after Apollo, the next goal of crewed space exploration was unclear. Mars was an obvious, high-profile choice, but a crewed mission to Mars likely would have been much more difficult than the Apollo program, and national leaders never pushed for one in a serious way. To be sure, NASA had grand preliminary plans for human exploration beyond the Moon, but funding – and likely, technical capabilities – for these ambitions missions were never available. This absence of a obvious, achievable goal hampered prospective Reagan-era and later American Cold War crewed spaceflight programs.

This cost-benefit framework offers an explanation for why the US and USSR invested heavily in crewed space programs during the 1950s and 1960s, but not during last decades of the Cold War. While the international system has changed immeasurably since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this same cost-benefit logic drives today’s policymakers’ decisions to invest in crewed space programs.

Again, first the benefit side of the tradeoff. High-profile crewed space achievements remain impressive. While modern China and India may not be ideological states in a bipolar world, they still retain significant prestige-motivations for crewed space programs. This is particularly true for China, which seeks to improve its position in the world order through demonstrations of economic, military, and technological power. Much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to Chinese policymakers the civilian space program – here “civilian” is a description of goals rather than administration, as China’s crewed space program is run by its military – is intended to cement China’s great power status in the minds of international observers. But importantly, China’s prestige-driven impetus for space investments is nowhere near that facing the security-minded Cold War-era US and USSR. This lower value assigned to the benefits of space achievements is reflected in the relatively relaxed priority of China’s crewed space program: China has achieved notable successes in space, but the pace of its efforts is not comparable to the Space Race. Clearly, China – which isn’t facing a potentially existential conflict with an ideological foe – does not judge space gains to national prestige as valuable as the Cold War rivals. This, of course, makes sense. For China, prominent achievements in human spaceflight are a means of bettering its international position, not a top-priority national security issue.

Importantly, all of today’s new or aspiring space powers have only replicated the feats accomplished by the Soviets and Americans a half century ago. This, again, is practical: as today’s comparably peaceful international order lowers the value of national prestige projects, aspiring space powers accordingly set their aspirations lower. The comparatively modest scope of these practical ambitions – “been there, done that,” in the words of uncharitable American observers – also allow new space powers to benefit from the dual-use synergy between military and civilian rocket technology, allowing them to reap prestige benefits from the ICBM technology they pursue anyway. In lower capability states aspirations to extend rocket development to human spaceflight may only be a rhetorical public relations stunt. Indeed, Iran’s space program is frequently alleged to be noting more than cover for ballistic missile development.

During the 1950s and 1960s a bipolar international order and a fortuitous alignment between the technologies required for civilian space exploration and nuclear deterrence combined to create the conditions that motivated heavy investments in civilian space programs. This is not an exaggerated description – the only reason the Space Race occurred was that the US-Soviet rivalry happened to coincide with the period when long-range military rockets were an emerging determinant of the balance of power. Without this synchronicity between an adversarial international system, conflation of national prestige and security, and convergence of civil and military space technological requirements, the Space Race would not have materialized. Barring a massive fall in the expected costs of ambitious human exploration, this logic suggests that the aspirations of new and aspiring spacefaring nations are unlikely to surpass the Space Race unless the international system reverts to the hostility of the Cold War’s height.

Towards a Crowded Heavens?

By Taylor Marvin

I have a new piece up at e-International Relations briefly summarizing the resurgence of interest in civil space programs, especially those outside of the traditional space powers. As more nations technological capabilities increase with economic growth, we can expect the ranks of spacefaring nations to increase. However, because civilian space programs are primarily motivated by national prestige concerns, which are less connected to national security than during the height of the Cold War, investment in space is unlikely to return to its Space Race-era heights barring a return to a hostile, bipolar global order. The kicker:

“How realistic these rising powers’ space ambitions are remains open to debate, because their national space programs are limited by both practical and political constraints. It is also worth remembering how many space exploration goals are never met. The greatest bar to optimistic hopes for exploration are not what a nation can do but instead what it chooses to do, and this choice is inherently political.”

The word limit for the piece was short enough that I wasn’t able to explore the issue in great detail, but check it out if you are interested. This is a conceptional similar argument to my last piece for the site, which argued that the US and China are unlikely to engage in a civilian space race in the foreseeable future.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Lie

By Taylor Marvin

Iran’s claim to have launched a live monkey into space on a suborbital rocket is false, the Times of London reported today — the monkey shown before flight is clearly not the same creature purportedly recovered. It is unclear if Iranian officials are attempting to cover up the death of the test creature in flight, or if the proclaimed launch happened at all.

The lack of international confirmation of the launch suggest that it was not conducted at all. But despite the amateurish qualities of the deception, it is unsurprising that the Iranian government would make false claims about the country’s space program. Iranian officials have a history of heavy-handedly exaggerating their country’s purported technical exploits for propaganda purposes. When the Iranians showcased a captured American RQ-170 drone in late 2011, they insisted that they had taken control of the aircraft in flight by spoofing its GPS systems; an unlikely claim.

The rational for these false claims is clear: it’s politically important that the Iranian government present itself as a technologically capable power unhampered by international isolation and impoverishment.

Iran’s history of exaggerated or false claims about its space program is not unprecedented. National space programs are important propaganda tools unmatched as a demonstration of national pride and technical skill. Given heavy rockets’ inherent dual use nature, they’re also a demonstration of military prowess that can be positively spun to neutral audiences as unobjectionable scientific advancement. Given these high stakes, authoritarian regimes capable of restricting news of space program failures have every reason to do so.

Space dog Laika, via Wikimedia.While the USSR could rightly pride its unmatched record of early Space Race achievements, Soviet leaders were highly aware of their space program’s propaganda value. The Soviets maintained for decades that Laika, a dog launched aboard the early satellite Sputnik 2, was painlessly euthanized in orbit; instead, she died in considerable distress from overheating during her first day in space. This falsehood fit into the larger purpose of the entire program. The prestige value of the Soviets’ space program had to be maintained, mandating that failures be concealed and successes trumpeted by the propaganda machine. The zero-sum soft power competition between the US and USSR left little room for transparency — the international prestige granted by space successes, after all, had considerable impact on real world power politics. Accordingly, Soviet achievements were often considerably exaggerated.

As the American space program began to ramp up, the Soviets hurriedly sought additional firsts to follow up their initial record achievements. One notable success was the 1964 Voskhod 1 mission, the first spacecraft to carry three men into orbit. But, as Greg Goebel notes in his comprehensive history of the race to the Moon, the frantic pressures of the space race meant that shortcuts had to be taken — shortcuts that could be obscured by Soviet restrictions on open information. As a larger capsule roomy enough to hold three cosmonauts in spacesuits would take too long to build, the Soviet space leadership elected to delete the spacesuits. Goebel quotes lead Soviet rocket engineer Sergey Korolev’s deputy Vasily Mishin:

“Fitting a crew of three people, and in spacesuits, in the cabin of the Voskhod was impossible. So — down with the spacesuits! And the cosmonauts went up without them. It was also impossible to make three hatches for ejection. So — down with the ejection devices!

Was it risky? Of course it was. It was if there was, sort of, a three-seater craft and, at the same time, there wasn’t. In fact, it was a circus act, for three people couldn’t do any useful work in space. They were cramped just sitting! No to mention that it was dangerous to fly.”

While not a lie, the Soviet celebration of Voskhod 1 was certainly an exaggeration of its actual engineering merit, and evidence of a program that prized propaganda over safety.

While America’s freedom of the press made it impossible to conceal major disasters in the US space program — if the horrific Apollo 1 fire had happened in the USSR, it would not have been public knowledge — NASA officials were similarly aware of the importance of propaganda. Early American astronauts were depicted as flawless demigods in the press, while knowledge of the astronauts personal failings were suppressed. My 1960 copy of Seven into Space, an all-American celebration of the Mercury program, celebrates the astronauts as simultaneously humble and superhuman, all while ignoring both the divisions within the program and coordinated press campaign designed to depict the astronauts, and by extension America, in the most positive light possible.

While this historical press campaign was nowhere near as dishonest as Iran’s fake spacefaring monkey, it was driven by the same reasons. Like its Soviet rival, for all its talk of noble exploration the early American space program was just as motivated by the desire to develop intercontinental missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads as national prestige concerns — as the Iranian program is today. In this high stakes game there’s no room for any failure, whether technological or personal. In national space programs what governments admit to is driven less by honesty than what they think they can get away with

Doubts about a New Space Race

By Taylor Marvin

Continuing my debate with Daryl Morini on the prospect of a new space race between China and the US, I have a piece up at e-International Relations arguing that the US and China are unlikely to escalate their military anti-satellite rivalry into a prestige-driven exploratory space race:

“The real barrier to unconstrained competition in space is the disheartening prospect of unconstrained costs. While ASAT kinetic kill missiles are certainly difficult to engineer, they are based on proven concepts. Novel space accomplishments are much more difficult. A permanent lunar base would require significant advances in in situ resource utilization, life support design, and likely a large reduction in launch costs. A crewed mission to Mars would be much more difficult, and would come with a significant risk of a catastrophic, long-running disaster. Even given the prisoner’s dilemma dynamic behind the choice to initiate a space or arms race, the US or China are only likely to bear the enormous opportunity costs of a prestige-driven space race unless they see no other choice. Given the multipolar world the twin superpowers are likely to inhabit this century, it is unlikely that either country will ‘jump the gap’ from a limited ASAT military space race to a general exploratory one.”

Check out the whole piece at e-IR if it sparks your interest.

A New Space Race? Not So Fast

By Taylor Marvin

A vision of what’s to come? NASA photo.

Over at The Diplomat, Daryl Morini has a though provoking piece arguing that NASA’s dramatic Mars Science Laboratory mission foretells “the coming US-China space race.”

To be sure, high profile NASA successes carry a nationalistic subtext. A failure of the highly-public Curiosity lander, in the words of prominent Mars exploration expert Robert Zubrin as paraphrased by Sydney Morning Herald writer Michael Hanlon, “could have meant effectively an end to the US venturing into space for at least a generation, and the keys to the solar system would have been handed to the Chinese.”

Zubrin’s warning is certainly grim, but is wildly overblown. The loss of the Curiosity lander would have been a major blow to the American planetary exploration program. But handing “the keys of the solar system” to the Chinese?* Unlikely — aside from Curiosity, NASA and the European Space Agency currently have four operational orbiters or rovers studying Mars: the 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, and the MER-B Opportunity rover. More importantly, this prediction underestimates just how important the trail-and-error experience is to successful space exploration, which China’s young space program lacks. China has never successfully dispatched an exploratory mission to Mars, and the recent launch failure of the joint Chinese-Russian Yinghuo-1/Fobos-Grunt probes reemphasizes how difficult these missions really are. We have every reason to expect Chinese exploratory successes in the future, but it’s worth remembering that the US and Russia’s dramatic successes in space are based on decades of painful but informative failures.

The Unites States has been dispatching missions to the Red Planet since the 1960s, missions that have grown more complex and less failure-prone over time. It’s likely that NASA’s recent string of dramatic Mars successes is due to technical and managerial lessons learned during the agency’s equally dramatic — and humiliating — failures in 1998 and 1999. For example, investigations in the wake of the loss of the Mars Polar Lander related Deep Space 2 impactor found that NASA projects were consistently under-resourced and under-tested, and a 2001 internal audit reported that Mars programs conceived under the 1990s ‘Faster Better Cheaper’ cost-cutting mantra lacked “appropriate number of staff or competencies needed to effectively carry out its strategic goals and objectives”. Today’s NASA Mars probes, which have not experienced a major failure since 1999, benefit from this experience. Even if Curiosity had failed, it will take decades of Chinese space exploration for the PRC to build up the institutional knowledge and experience NASA benefits from.

More importantly, Morini argues that the success of Curiosity and China’s nascent space ambitions herald a new space race:

“This amazing feat in human space exploration is revealing of the geopolitical context back on Planet Earth. In particular, this event marks a milestone in the present trend of an expanding US-China rivalry, and a budding military-technological space race.”

The last space race put humans into space, and left footprints on the moon. America and China are beginning to militarily compete in space, but the term “space race”, with its grand historical allusions, poorly characterizes this rivalry. In fact, I’d be very surprised if the US-China geopolitical rivalry likely to dominate this century results in a space competition similar to the Cold War’s, for numerous reasons.

First off, the US-Soviet space race was enormously expensive. At its peak the Apollo moon program consumed 2.2 percent of federal outlays; while figures for the Soviets are hard to come by, a combination of chronic resource shortages in the Soviet space program and a tangled bureaucracy crippled the Russians’ moon shot despite the Soviets’ impressive engineering credentials. Uncrewed exploratory probes were also expensive, though of course paled in comparison to crewed space programs. The massive government pushes of the space race were only possible because the conflict between the US and USSR was so intense — remember, while American and the Soviet engineers were scrambling to put a man on the moon there was a distinct possibility that their two countries could blow each other to hell at any moment.

Curiosity on its way to Mars. USAF photo by George Roberts, via Wikimedia.

Fortunately, the rivalry between economically interdependent America and China is nowhere near as severe its Cold War predecessor, and has little prospect of becoming so. This makes it difficult to imagine America’s rivalry with China justifying massive space expenditures. Furthermore, the space race of the Cold War was a competition played for external audiences just as much as domestic consumption: both the US and USSR sought to demonstrate their system’s scientific and industrial superiority to non-aligned nations. Outside of the bipolar international structure of the Cold War, these audience considerations have less merit; Washington and Beijing alone will not dominate this century’s world affairs to the extent that the rivalry with Moscow did during the second half of the 20th.

The relatively balmy relations between Washington and Beijing make aggressive space expenditures unlikely. As I argued earlier this year [slightly edited for clarity]

“The Apollo program was an enormously expensive effort, costing $98 billion over 14 years. Yes, this expenditure is dwarfed by the US defense budget — in 1969 alone the US spent nearly $500 billion in 2009 dollars on military spending — but 2.2% of federal spending comes with large opportunity costs. Governments don’t spend these kinds of funds lightly, especially if there’s little apparent electoral benefit from massive space spending. The Apollo program only scraped above a 50 percent approval rating in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing, and without the external Soviet threat it’s unlikely that the massive space expenditure of the 1960s would have been possible.”

Without a dramatic, and unlikely, worsening in US-China relations it is difficult to imagine any political appetite for these kind of expenditures.

It’s also difficult to imagine the target of a US-China space race. Transient excitement over Curiosity aside, uncrewed space exploration just doesn’t capture the hearts of the world: few people will retell where they were when Curiosity landed to their children. To be sure, competition between the US and Soviet space programs included unmanned planetary exploration, but these probes were always a minor — and often publicly ignored — chapter in the space race. After all, while most Americans today can likely identify that the USSR launched the first man into orbit (hopefully!), few are aware of the Soviets’ impressive successes landing probes on the surface of Venus.

A return to the Moon is a natural target for a US-China space race. However, I’m not sure the Moon retains a powerful draw. Sending taikonauts to the Moon by 2030 is an official goal of the Chinese space program, but replicating an American achievement half a century old doesn’t exactly fit the dramatic definition of a space race. Even establishing a manned base on the moon, the eventual goal of the Chinese lunar program, is unlikely to stimulate a competing American base. A permanent human presence on the moon is of little scientific value and, contrary to many claims, would be of little use as a base for expeditions to Mars or other extraterrestrial targets. Similarly, mining operations on the Moon are likely decades away. China may go through with its lunar goals — though it’s worth remembering that very few grand long-term space goals articulated by any national space agencies ever progress beyond the paper stage  — but it is unlikely that replicating the US lunar landing in grander form will motivate aggressive competing American space spending.

Mars, of course, is the logical target of a US-China space race; a crewed mission to Mars by either country would be a truly impressive accomplishment. But just as the technical difficulty of Apollo far surpassed those the earlier Vostok program faced, a crewed mission to Mars would be far more difficult, dangerous, and expensive than traveling to the Moon. A crewed Mars mission would require major advances in spacecraft and mission design, and keeping humans healthy during the isolated and radiation-heavy four to eight month (depending on the propulsion technology used) trip to the red planet is a daunting challenge. A crewed Mars program would require numerous heavy lift launches and establishing a comsat system around Mars, and more ambitious mission designs require advances in orbital construction. These difficulties do not mean that crewed missions to Mars are impossible, but it is worth noting that the Apollo program is not a good predictor of their cost or difficulty. Colonizing space — which Morini likens to the pre-WWI Scramble for Africa — is even more expensive, and technically challenging.

Secondly, the space race of the Cold War was not solely an exercise in peaceful competition. Instead, the space race was an organic outgrowth of the missile race between the US and USSR. As Greg Goebel’s extensive history of the space race emphasizes, early investment by Washington and Moscow in rocket technology was motivated by the desire to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles; Sputnik, humanity’s first satellite, was launched almost as an afterthought. The real focus of both programs was fielding missiles capable of heavy throw weights, and later on developing rockets capable of putting heavy spy satellites in orbit. Of course, a rocket capable of carrying a heavy warhead across the world is not conceptional very different from one capable of lifting a civilian payload to orbit. While the extremely heavy-lift rockets of the later moon race had no connection to military use, they leveraged off technologies developed in the missile race — technologies like working solid and liquid fueled engines, staging, and ablative reentry heat shields all grew out of early ICBM design. It is doubtful that the Cold War space race would have taken off the way it did if the military enthusiasm for early rocket development didn’t guarantee funding for nascent space programs.

Does the current military rivalry between the US and China reflect this dynamic? Not really. The military already has ICBMs and spy satellites, and little motivation to invest in further innovative space projects, at least compared to the innovation of Cold War rocket development. The technological developments necessary for more ambitious US/Soviet space race-style exploration have no relevance to today’s militaries. If another true space race occurs, politicians must justify it entirely on civilian grounds.

Morini focuses on this military rivalry, cautioning against forgetting “the military significance of technological superiority in space in any modern war.” This is certainly true. China is heavily investing in anti-satellite weapons as part of its asymmetric area-denial/anti-access strategy, the US Air Force recently developed the impressive X-37 uncrewed spaceplane, there is the future possibility of the US and China competing to acquire the ability to mission-kill each other’s surveillance satellites, and a broad area maritime satellite surveillance capability is a requirement for China to operationally deploy its anti-ship ballistic missile capability. However, unlike during the Cold War this is a rivalry of deployment rather than innovation. The US and USSR both possessed rudimentary to advanced anti-satellite capabilities during the Cold War, though both sides avoided frequently demonstrating their capabilities for fear of creating dangerous orbital derbies. Current space militarization is more accurately characterized as expanding neglected existing capabilities than truly pushing the technical envelope. While the rivalry between the US and China could lead to fielding more comprehensive anti-satellite capabilities, it’s difficult to term this a “space race” — certainly when compared to the theatrics of the Cold War. While this may be a question of semantics, I have trouble believing that the public will acknowledge that competing surveillance and anti-satellite systems warrant the title.

If you define a space race as gradually improving space military capabilities, then yes, one is “now in full swing”. But the Space Race of the Cold War, where the US and USSR competed to match each others dramatic and daring exploration, is a memory and one’s that’s unlikely to soon be repeated.

*Note that these aren’t Zubrin’s direct words; I was unable to find the direct quote Hanlon paraphrases. Also note that Zubrin is a long-time advocate of crewed missions to Mars (check out his excellent book The Case for Mars), and certainly has an incentive to play up fears of a new space race.

China’s Space Ambitions

By Taylor Marvin

This video from the Chinese government has been making the rounds for a few days, and if you haven’t see it it’s worth a watch:

If you didn’t notice, the stirring orchestral score in the background is “America the Beautiful”. Opinions seem to be split on how this happened: either it’s a hilarious oversight on the part of whatever bureaucrat approved this animation, or it’s a not-so-subtle message to an indebted America in the process of downsizing its manned space program. I’d lean towards the former explanation, but both are a possibility.

If this is a message, it’s also worth noting that it’s a bit of a toothless one. While Chinese technological and logistical capabilities are advancing in leaps and bounds, it’s important to remember that the Tiangong-1 — romantically, “heavenly palace” — space station featured in the video is roughly equivalent to the Skylab program the US flew in the mid 1970s. Unlike the Soviet/Russian Mir station or today’s multinational ISS, the Tiangong 1 is a single capsule, rather than a larger station assembled in orbit. While the Tiangong 1 is officially intended to serve as a precursor to a future larger and more complex station, the differences in  logistical and technological capabilities required for a single unit and complex ISS-type station are extremely large, and it isn’t clear when China will be able to acquire these capabilities.

For example, the Chinese rocket with the highest current LEO payload capability, the Long March 3B, is capable of delivering 12,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit. For comparison, the primary US research module aboard ISS, Destiny, has a mass of 14,520 kg. A heavy-lift Long March vehicle with a LEO payload capability of 25,000 is currently in development, and scheduled to enter service sometime after 2014. While the Long March 5’s projected payload capabilities are impressive, it’s comparable to the retired Space Shuttle and current Delta IV launch systems’ capabilities, and far below the forecasted 70,000 kg LEO payload of the proposed SLS Space Shuttle successor (though of course the Long March 5 is close to entering service, and the SLS is still a paper project likely over a decade away from a manned launch). This isn’t to say that the Chinese won’t be able to accomplish their ambitious goals in space, but to emphasis that ambitious space programs are very difficult to actually accomplish. Space programs are expensive, even for the Chinese, and the Chinese government experiences the same internal competition for resources as everyone else. Though international prestige is clearly an important motivation for the PRC leadership, space programs around the world have along history of being out-competed by other priorities. There are good reasons to be concerned about the increasingly assertive Chinese government, but it’s also worth taking their ambitious goals with a grain of salt.