New Column: A Four Way Space Race

Tobias Buckell takes a look at what China’s entry into the space race means for the future of Earthlings on and off this planet.

With Chinese taikanauts in orbit, many online are wondering if there will be another space race. Maybe not, but there are four strong spheres of influence developing in orbit, and each one has its own unique and cultural approach.

Japan is about to make a big decision. Previously they have tried to create their own space program, and the results have been far from impressive. JAXA, the Japanese space agency, has been beset by a number of public failures in its attempt to create a strong program. But right now Tokyo is considering whether to throw its hat in with the European Space Agency, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in joining Russia’s new Klipper space ship and program.

While the U.S. hasn’t launched a human into orbit in the last couple years (as China has managed two successful launches and Russia numerous), the axis of successful manned space programs has gone east. Russia’s formally overly centralized space program has reinvented itself, focusing on reliable well-tested decade’s old designs and garnering paying customers of any sort (like the US, individual people, or other nations) to help subsidize the program.

China’s technology is imitative of the Russian method, using well known and well tested designs. So far it has allowed them to leap forward quickly, and one imagines they will soon have a very similar system, although China’s use of the program is based more on the nationalistic goals and pride of the US and Russian programs decades ago.

The European agency has thrown its lot in with the Russians, hoping that cheaper modules and simple designs repeated and produced in bulk will make things cheap.

The US has recently retooled its space initiative. Like the Chinese and Russians the designs are returning to a design focus of an earlier age. but despite some culture changes with Centennial Prizes that mimic the X-Prize, the close alliances with big business mean that N.A.S.A will shoulder the cost and the risk of developing a new systems set of space hardware, meaning that many of the previous risks that caused problems with N.A.S.A’s program (remember the Lockheed Martin Spaceplane project?) still lurk around the corner if the corporations working with N.A.S.A have no incentive to keep costs low once they have a guaranteed contract.

Space enthusiasts are watching N.A.S.A closely, and putting their hopes into the private sector taking up the slack. Since the X-Prize launched there has been a flurry of private space activity.

These four spheres aren’t exclusive. Russia’s consortium, China’s program, N.A.S.A and the general private space sector all at times cooperate with each other in various methods, and maybe all four methods will succeed. Competition is king. But the lines are becoming a little clearer as players line up.

It will be interesting to see which, if any, of these spheres becomes dominant.

One thought on “New Column: A Four Way Space Race”

  1. SciFi aside, the lure of space is waning. Spending billions of dollars for a few PhDs to conduct experiments in vacuum doesn’t seem like a great payoff – and there’s no immediate return on investment for exploring other planets for life or minerals. Space tourism is more brag right than wonderous sight. LM Spacecraft? We don’t even fly Concorde when petroleum was cheap. Would I spend my tax money to construct the next Mir? By Jove, I hope not!

    So what is really left? Satellites. People already knew that satellites are the extent of space explorations we are willing to invest in, since it offers direct payback, both in communication and in potential military applications. Our GPS satellites are stretching their reliable lifespan. India and Israel also have space capabilities. Taiwan recently deployed their weather satellites for hurricanes. Even S. Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and Brazil are trying to sever their reliance on the current oligopoly.

    There is indeed a space race coming up, but it’s driven more by economics and changing global politics.

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