Space race rebooted? Or, y’know, not.

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2011

All this talk of rocketry and path dependency, and now it looks like we’re going to re-run one of the classic (arguably) bloodless megaconflicts of the 20th Century all over again: Russia is working on a clone-job of the US Air Force’s little-known but oft-alluded-to “spaceplane”, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle!

Stepping away from sensationalist overstatement for a moment (hey, us internet hacks have to attract eyeballs somehow, right?), I don’t think this is anywhere near as big a story as it it’s being made out to be. For a start, all we have to go one regarding the Russian project is a statement of intent, and given the state of the Russian economy (and the alleged state of its government), I’m not sure they’re in any position to pour funding and expertise into a space race right now… indeed, I’d have thought China would be a more potent potential player on that particular gameboard.

Secondly, a similar but less severe problem pertains with the United States, namely the same econopolitical instability that’s so globally fashionable right now (“favela chic, darling – everyone‘s doing it!”). I don’t doubt there’s work being done on the X-37B, but I can’t see it being a significant budget draw in an era of domestic financial woes, long drawn-out “liberation” projects in the Middle East, and an internecine state of polarised political pugilism.

Again, among the nation-state players I’d say China looks like a much better bet for significant progress toward the top of the gravity well in the next decade or so. The commercial space outfits may make some strides as well, but given the sort of characters heading those organisations, I suspect any allegience to the U.S. as anything other than a source of expertise and skills will be more a matter of convenince and expedience than of national pride.

Nonetheless (and as I seem to be saying on a pretty much daily basis of late), interesting times ahead.