Copyright 2007 Starry Mirror and Glen Ward
Online Astronomy Newspaper
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THE DANGEROUS NEW SPACE RACE
BRIDGEPORT, WV (S-M) - It is becoming increasingly apparent that America is on the verge of becoming the second or third ranking space faring nation. Furthermore, it is clear that our country's leaders and citizenry do not appreciate the implications that such developments would have.
The US Space Program has been faltering for decades. After the truly awesome successes of Apollo and Skylab in the 1970's, the Space Shuttle program came along and began the decline. The Space Shuttle was ill-conceived from the start. Although NASA has presented it as a success, in truth it is an overly expensive, overly engineered operational nightmare. Several design features such as the fragile heat-protecting tile system practically guaranteed fatalities sooner or later. The sad fact is that NASA would have been far better off to have continued with single-use, rocket-based systems such as the Saturn V and recognized from early design studies that the "space plane" concept had serious flaws.
But that is thirty years of water under the bridge, and today NASA has decided to return to the older rocket-based concepts with the new Orion spacecraft. This terrific decision was quickly undermined by a budget smaller than needed. Furthermore, funding for the project could be cut off completely if Barack Obama is elected President. He has promised to delay the project for ten years and use the funds for social purposes.
And that delay of ten years is exactly what the Chinese are hoping for. The Chinese have launched an agressive space program with the kinds of big goals that NASA forgot long ago. China put its first astronaut, Yang Liwei, into orbit in 2003, They are on the verge of spacewalks, and will likely have a space station in orbit within a few years. The country plans to land men on the Moon by 2020, with establishment of a Moon base to follow soon after. The head designer of their spacecraft, Qi Faren, has stated, "The Chinese manned space program is not aimed at sending tourists into space, but instead at preparing for the manned exploration of Mars and Saturn."
When Sputnik was launched in 1957, it created a panic about our national security situation. Such a panic was not uncalled for. Had the Soviets truly surpassed us in spaceflight, they might well have militarized their space program. This would have put us in extreme peril. Luckily, we were quite close behind the Soviets in developing space vehicles and the launch of Explorer 1 in early 1958 put us at parity with the communists.
Since then, spaceflight has been a rather cheery, positive activity in the international scene. Though spy satellites were launched early on, space was never truly militarized and the competition between nations remained friendly. A comraderie between scientists, astronauts and cosmonauts offered hope for a humanity that was often poised on the verge of nuclear war. The space programs of the twentieth century will go down in history as one of humanity's finest achievements.
But that was then. Today, NASA is a political organization which has a large number of small and unimportant unmanned science missions, with little focus on the big prizes - putting people on the Moon and Mars. NASA has become intertwined with the faltering Russian program, and has become lessened as a result. The offer to put ultra-wealthy "space tourists" into orbit for a huge price should be an incredible embarassment to Russia. No doubt, the communist space pioneers are rolling in their graves.
Meanwhile, the Chinese program is intensely focused on its goals, China has acquired the necessary finances for spaceflight, and its educational system is turning out students in engineering, mathematics and science who are second to none. Labor costs are tiny and Chinese industry is now nearly as advanced as that in the West, because we have given our manufacturing industries to them in the quest for cheap consumer products.
China is run by the Communist party and a totalitarian government with a long record of human rights abuses. The Chinese communists put less value on human life than we do and they are likely to take much more risk in their space endeavors. Though we have tolerated them in order to take advantage of their cheap labor, the Chinese are practically a rouge state with a population of 1 billion people and we doubt very much that they would resist the urge to militarize their space program if they gained an advantage. China has supported our enemies in North Korea, Viet Nam, and other hotspots. Therefore, we consider the situation which is developing in regards to their space program to be a near emergency.
The U.S. should immediately consider a complete tear-down overhaul of its space program. It is time to clean house at NASA and remove the politicians and beauracrats who have no vision. The myriad of small, petty projects should be cancelled and the focus should be on two or three large missions. The Air Force should become more involved in the program, as it was in the 1960's.
The public must be made aware once again that spaceflight is not just a neat government hobby but an issue of our national security which must be pursued whatever the cost. It will be expensive and politicians will be leery of giving the necessary funding without public support.
Spaceflight is on the verge of a new era. Its importance will be greater than ever, and if we fail to be the leader in space then our overall position in the world and our safety will be deminished to a dangerous extent. - Glen Ward