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When a space race can be a good thing

While I have been skeptical of claims of an imminent US-China space race, others, like Mark Whittington, have not. However, a more important issue might be the perception of competition, Dwayne Day argues in a new article from The Space Review. Increased spending on civilian space activities, such as manned spaceflight, takes funding and other resources that could be used for other activities, notably military programs. This can even be accomplished without even the perception of competition, by instead engaging China in cooperative ventures. It’s a compelling argument, although one could counter that China could manage to fund both civilian space and military programs fully by taking money from other areas, although that too could have consequences.

34 comments to When a space race can be a good thing

  • Mark R. Whittington

    I don’t know whether Dwayne has read the book or not, but in my alternate history novel, Children of Apollo, I have President Nixon using much the same strategy against the Soviets as Dwyane proposes against the Chinese.

  • “The only demonstrated payoff of human spaceflight is prestige. There is nothing that a human can do in low Earth orbit, other than the study of other humans, that a robot cannot do better.”

    Gee, what a limited imagination (and spaceflight operations experience base) you have Dwayne.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    I have not read Children of Apollo.

    The idea of getting the Chinese to spend finite amounts of money on things other than missiles comes from several sources. First, it has long been claimed–I think without much justification–that Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative helped to “spend the Soviets into bankruptcy.” I think that’s an interesting concept, even if it is not proven in the case of SDI.

    But the overall idea is not new. Just yesterday I discovered a quote from NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications, Homer Newell, who told the House Science Committee in 1965: “One of the major advantages of mounting a comprehensive scientific and engineering effort for the exploration of outerspace in competition with the USSR is that it is a game we can well afford to play, in contrast to the arms race. In the game with nuclear warheads, there are no winners. Our economy is larger and more viable than Russia’s. The Soviet Union can compete in space only by subtracting what it puts into it from what otherwise would largely have gone into military budgets.”

    In fact, Newell’s comments are only the most explicit among a lot of comments during Apollo about the possibility of using civilian space exploration as a “surrogate for war.”

  • Bill White

    Keith,

    With Russian launch costs flirting with $1,000 per pound to LEO (okay $1,000 to $2,500) and with the explosive growth of outsourcing and transnational business ventures,

    IF there truly existed viable business models for making profits with humans in LEO, THEN, where is everybody? If Nike can make its profits by using cheap Asian labor, then why shouldn’t space capitalists make their profits using cheap Russian and Ukrainian boosters?

    Alt-space hype aside, I am reminded of Enrico Fermi’s famous question – - okay, where is everybody?

    Where is the “demonstrated” commercial or scientific payoff for human access to LEO? The simple fact that no one has taken advantage of low cost Russian/Ukrainian launch prices to create a viable humans in LEO business model suggests that Dwayne Day may have a point after all.

  • Read carefully what Dwayne wrote – this wide, sweeping, all inclusive statement – one apparently not open to any exceptions – commercial, technical, or anything else i.e.

    “The only demonstrated payoff of human spaceflight is prestige. There is nothing that a human can do in low Earth orbit, other than the study of other humans, that a robot cannot do better.”

    Then again this is an ‘analyst’ and a ‘historian’ making this grand pronouncement.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    “Then again this is an ‘analyst’ and a ‘historian’ making this grand pronouncement.”

    One of the things that I think really diminishes NASA Watch is Mr. Cowing’s tendency to insert snide comments about people he disagrees with. And he does it on a website where nobody he attacks can reply.

    Now if he wants to debate issues without resorting to ad hominem attacks, I’m perfectly willing to do so.

  • Bill White

    As “analysis” of the “history” of the past 45 years of human spaceflight, I believe this statement:

    “The only demonstrated payoff of human spaceflight is prestige. There is nothing that a human can do in low Earth orbit, other than the study of other humans, that a robot cannot do better.”

    is pretty darn hard to dispute. Now, where we go from here is another question. Since I favor the ultimate goal of settlement, and we need people to make human babies, I support humans to LEO and beyond.

    But my goal is settlement, not short or medium term profit or LEO science. Remove settlement from the table and I am a bigger fan of robotic space exploration. That is why the Bush term “exploration” scares the heck out of me.

    If commerical profit is the goal then the US investment in CEV and things like that is mere foolishness. Routine humans to LEO could be accomplished far easier and far cheaper by paying the Russians whatever it takes to deploy their Kliper design.

    Its American prestige and national security needs that prevents us from doing exactly that (buying Russian rather than paying Boeing many billions for CEV) – - And I am not saying I disagree with the legitimate need for US prestige and national security, lets just be honest about it.

  • Bill, it’s trivial to dispute, and I did so a couple days ago.

    http://www.transterrestrial.com/archives/003666.html#003666

  • “One of the things that I think really diminishes NASA Watch is Mr. Cowing’s tendency to insert snide comments about people he disagrees with.”

    Gosh Dwayne, one quick look at FPSPACE and you can be seen doing so all the time.

    “And he does it on a website where nobody he attacks can reply.”

    If you think I have been unfair and want to reply Dwayne, by all means reply. Hey, why not start your own website?

    Besides there are multiple online fora such as this one where you can reply.

    I’d post to FPSPACE except that the owner of the list has refused to allow me to join every time I have attempted to do so over the years. Its not that I have posted things they don’t like – I never stay on the list long enough to do so. As such people are free to post things about me there – but I am unable to reply. Such is life.

  • Bill White

    Rand, I suppose you are correct, IF we first accept that the ISS and orbiter based science missions have actually done anything useful.

    My prejudice (whether rational or irrational) is that in the long run the ONLY useful reason for sending people into space is to facilitate our species ability to settle other worlds. If we start with the premise that settlement is our ultimate goal then I agree with Rand that there are many useful things only humans can do in LEO.

    Otherwise there is nothing humans can do in LEO (or on Mars) that is worth the cost and risk, except prestige. President Bush’s proposed gutting of non-engineering oriented space science demonstrates this, IMHO.

    “Exploration” without a commitment to settlement is pointless in my opinion.

    As I have posted elsewhere (my website is under construction) “spacefaring” means having the ability to conceive, bear and raise offspring at multiple celestial locations. Everything else involving humans in LEO is about prestige, not profit or even national security.

  • Bill White

    Back to the original point of Jeff’s entry – - a race to establish the first sustainable permanent human settlement somewhere “out there” will easily threaten to bankrupt any society that undertakes to compete.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    “If you think I have been unfair and want to reply Dwayne, by all means reply.”

    Does this mean that you are going to add a comments feature to your NASAWatch blog? That would allow the people you criticise to reply. I am sure we would all welcome such a feature, as it is common to most blogsites. It seems only fair.

    As for FPSpace, it is a discussion group. When I comment there, anybody can reply. In fact, I wish they would. There is no “owner” of the list-serve, only an administrator. David Woods has handled administrative issues there for a year or so. Have you tried contacting him?

    But this is all immaterial. Why not drop the ad hominem attacks and discuss the issues? I wrote several thousand words in that piece, most of which is on China and international cooperation. Why not discuss those issues?

  • – Does this mean that you are going to add a comments feature to your NASAWatch blog? That would allow the people you criticise to reply. I am sure we would all welcome such a feature, as it is common to most blogsites. It seems only fair.–

    (sigh) Do you want to post a reply for posting on NASA Watch Dwayne? Yes or no? I won’t ask again.

    – As for FPSpace, it is a discussion group. When I comment there, anybody can reply. In fact, I wish they would. There is no “owner” of the list-serve, only an administrator. David Woods has handled administrative issues there for a year or so. Have you tried contacting him?–

    Every time I have submitted the request to join it has been refused. Jennifer (forgot last name) who used to run it made sure that I could not join. I tried again and again and was rejected – so I gave up trying.

    – But this is all immaterial. Why not drop the ad hominem attacks and discuss the issues? I wrote several thousand words in that piece, most of which is on China and international cooperation. Why not discuss those issues?–

    “ad hominem?” Exactly right: I question your technical ability to make these judgements. If you are going to tout yourself as a “space analyst” then I suggest you get used to that or grow some thicker skin. If you want to reply to NASA Watch then address that issue in the course of your comments.

    Dwayne, you are free to comment on a variety of websites whenever you wish. If you do not like the way my site – or others operate (i.e. that mine is ‘not fair’), why not stop whinning about it and start your own? I am sure Jeff would show you how to do it.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Cowing, I’m confused, are you going to add a comment section to your blogsite so that the people you attack there can respond? Most blogsites have these so that we can have the kind of discussion that we are having here. What is wrong with adding one to NASAWatch?

    I’m surprised at the offer to write a one-time reply for NASAWatch. Not knowing the terms of this offer (such as whether my response would be edited), I cannot commit to that.

    “Every time I have submitted the request to join it has been refused. Jennifer (forgot last name) who used to run it made sure that I could not join.”

    Jennifer Green. She no longer administers the list-serve. She is currently in Africa working for the Peace Corps, I believe. I suggest contacting David Woods about this. They have had software glitches in the past, particularly because of spam and virus protection. He made a post about this a few weeks ago:

    http://www.friends-partners.org/pipermail/fpspace/2004-April/012297.html

    He said that the software had occasionally kicked off or rejected people and suggested that anybody who was having these problems contact him. Mr. Woods is a polite and professional person, and I am sure that he can respond.

    “I question your technical ability to make these judgements.” But since when is the _justification_ for human spaceflight a technical issue? And are the only people allowed to have opinions on this technical ones?

    We’re not designing spacecraft here, we’re discussing policy and the purpose of sending humans into space. The Soviet Union and the United States launched people into orbit back in the early 1960s for political reasons. America went to the moon for political reasons. The shuttle was approved for political reasons. China launched Shenzou into orbit for political reasons. I actually think that prestige is a _valid_ reason for launching people into space. And as I wrote in the article, human spaceflight–particularly a race with China to the moon–can have benefits to the United States.

  • I did not attack *you* Dwayne. I questioned your technical capabilities in reponse to public statements you made – and spacecraft design assessments contain therein.

    I then offered you a chance to post something on NASA Watch and you decide to play semantic games, inject conditions that I never specified, and parse the offer instead. Don’t say I didn’t offer you the chance. Again, why whine about this: post here – or start your own website. Jeff has the software.

    Dwayne said “We’re not designing spacecraft here, we’re discussing policy and the purpose of sending humans into space”

    Oh you are just being goofy and inconsistent Dwayne. You made a statement – one that stands alone in – or out of – context that is dripping with spacecraft engineering, operations, and design implications. And now you are now distancing yourself from that statement.

    As for joining FPSPACE I have been having this problem for YEARS.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Cowing, I am still mystified by all of this. You do not feel that I am qualified to express positions that you disagree with. Fine. But by your own admission you engaged in an ad hominem attack rather than discuss the specific issues raised in my essay. So I am sure you understand why I would be wary of sending you something I wrote and allowing you to post it on your website without preconditions.

    But that aside, I encourage you to add a comments section to NASAWatch so that people can reply there to your comments rather than have to seek out other forums.

  • “Rand, I suppose you are correct, IF we first accept that the ISS and orbiter based science missions have actually done anything useful.”

    My dispute had nothing to do with either ISS or orbiter-based science missions.

    I described the repair of Skylab, and the rescue and repair of three other satellites, two commercial and one scientific. Whether these were worth the cost of the missions was debatable, but they were clearly things that robots could not have done at the time (and probably couldn’t do today). We certainly learned a lot about on-orbit servicing and repair from them. I think that, given that we were flying Shuttle anyway, they were immensely useful, and perhaps some of the most useful things that we’ve done with it (not to mention Hubble repair, another thing that a robot would not have been able to do).

  • “Mr. Cowing, I am still mystified by all of this. You do not feel that I am qualified to express positions that you disagree with. Fine. But by your own admission you engaged in an ad hominem attack rather than discuss the specific issues raised in my essay.”

    C’mon Dwayne I most certainly DID discuss an issue raised in your article – and your qualfications to make such an assessment. What mystifies me is your unwillingness to use NASA Watch – when offered – to defend yourself.

    Again, you are just being goofy.

  • Mark R. Whittington

    Dwyane, where did you find Newell’s statement?

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Whittington wrote:
    “Where did you find Newell’s statement?

    Newell’s statement is quoted in “Soviet Space Programs, 1962-1965: Goals and Purposes, Achievements, Plans, and International Implications,” staff report, 89th Congress, 2nd session, Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, 30 December 1966, p. 127.

    However, I actually found it in an unpublished essay sent to me by a German Ph.D. student for review. His essay is on how the American space program during the 1960s was a “surrogate for war.”

    It is a really well-written essay and the author asked for my comments and suggestions on where to publish it. He has collected a large number of contemporaneous comments from politicians, journalists, NASA officials and others indicating that they viewed space as a method for demonstrating American capabilities and power. It’s such a good piece that I’ve found a lot of interesting material in it that I was unaware of.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Simberg wrote:
    “I described the repair of Skylab, and the rescue and repair of three other satellites, two commercial and one scientific. Whether these were worth the cost of the missions was debatable, but they were clearly things that robots could not have done at the time (and probably couldn’t do today).”

    Yes, in all of those cases, humans could do something that robots could not (and still cannot) do.

    However, in this case my definition of “better” includes cost. (My original statement was: “There is nothing that a human can do in low Earth orbit… that a robot cannot do better.”) I imagine that if I had simply written “…better, or at lower cost,” then Mr. Simberg would probably agree.

    The cost of the two repair missions using shuttle was in fact greater than the cost of the vehicles they replaced if you do full cost accounting and include such things as the amortized cost of shuttle development. I know that Mr. Simberg is no fan of the shuttle and I doubt that he would argue that using shuttle to repair robotic spacecraft in orbit makes economic sense. Otherwise, why aren’t we doing it right now? If it is not economical to do this using the current assets, then how can it be “better”?

    Skylab is a slightly different case, as the manned mission to Skylab was already planned. It was therefore essentially a “gimme” (an old term; I think it comes from the game of marbles–but I hope you know what I mean; they were going up there anyway and the only reason to save Skylab was so that the humans could use it. It had no other value than its value as a human-tended research laboratory.). This is the tautology that human spacecraft exist in–they justify themselves.

    Anyway, we all know that one of the traps that NASA fell into in the 1970s and 1980s was designing robotic spacecraft to be serviceable by humans in part to justify the use of the shuttle. If you design the system–such as Hubble–so that the only way to upgrade or repair it requires humans, then in effect you’re creating a self-licking ice cream cone, that is, a system that serves its own needs, rather than an external set of requirements. Now that is fine if the humans can be placed in orbit cheaply. Servicing spacecraft in LEO made sense if one bought the claim that shuttle would be cheap and easy to fly to LEO. But that turned out not to be the case and so all of the satellite servicing missions that were planned in the early 1990s were abandoned (except Hubble).

    Put a different way, how many Hubble Space Telescopes could we have built and launched by now for the costs of all of those servicing missions? So is it fair to say that “repair of broken spacecraft” is “better” than disposal and replacement of broken spacecraft, if you have stacked the deck?

    For all of the other missions done in LEO–meteorology, navigation, reconnaissance, some communications, some earth science–the robots are superior. That is why those missions are performed by robots and not by manned spacecraft.

    Now note some of the other words that I used and did not use. “Demonstrable” is past tense. It does not mean that no other valid reasons cannot be demonstrated in the future. Spacecraft repair _could_ make sense assuming that human spaceflight can be made significantly cheaper than it is today. But somebody has to _demonstrate_ that it makes sense, because right now we know that spending half a billion dollars to launch a space shuttle to repair a $200 million satellite does not make sense.

    Note also that I never said anything about the Moon and Mars–because that was not the subject of the essay. In the past I’ve written that humans are probably far more efficient than robots for exploration, but that their cost is far higher. Numerous people have noted that three months of Opportunity roving around the Martian surface is the equivalent of about one day of field work by a trained geologist. While that’s probably true, it is equally true that the government is willing to fund that level of effort but not willing to fund a full-fledged human mission to Mars even though it would be far more productive.

    And I’d also like to know what is so bad about prestige as a motivation for human spaceflight? It led to the three active human spacecraft we have now. It is certainly one of the primary reasons why China built Shenzou.

    But this is really all a sideshow. The essay was about China and whether or not it makes sense to cooperate with them, AND compete with them. I’d rather debate that.

  • Bill White

    The Russians, Chinese, Germans and French are making space deals left and right. I remain astonished that Soyuz at Kouru generates so little concern within the US space community. A joint ESA / RSA deployment of Kliper at Kouru and the US space program ends up in a distant 3rd place.

    All while the United States will spend tens of billions of dollars on a dead-end program (STS & ISS) then scrap the whole thing and start over with EELV in 2014.

    And we snub every potential partner along the way.

    A recipe for disaster, IMHO.

  • Dwayne–

    “‘Demonstrable’ is past tense. It does not mean that no other valid reasons cannot be demonstrated in the future.”

    Well, most people familiar with the English language would think it means exactly that. “Demonstrated” would be past tense. “Demonstrable” is present and future.

    And no, I don’t think that repairing satellites, commercial or otherwise, can justify the cost of the Shuttle per se, but given that it was already flying for other reasons (dubious or otherwise), the satellite rescues were as good a use for it as any, and did in fact demonstrate the utility of humans on orbit, given low-cost access, while building on our experience base. They were both demonstrated and demonstrable things at which humans are better than robots in LEO, and depending on how you do the cost accounting, perhaps even made economic sense at the margin.

    And why didn’t you come over and argue about this at my blog?

    And Bill, you have far too much respect for the space bureaucracies of other nations. We don’t need them to have a real space program, and in fact the Russians have proven to be an anchor, at least the way we chose to do business with them.

    This will all become moot if private industry takes off, because unlike idealistic space enthusiasts and the State Department, they’ll certainly have no fervent desire to have international partnerships for the sake of having international partnerships.

  • Harold LaValley

    So now lets get out there and run this race to the moon or to Mars so that we will not end up there second to any other nations. OOPS, I forgot Nasa can not even get out of the starting gate due to the budget woos for those that do not want to sign on any budget increases even if they are not Nasa’s as well. At this rate we will not be going in this century to any of the SEI vision locations or to any other place other than LEO.

  • Bill White

    Rand writes:

    > > And Bill, you have far too much respect for the space bureaucracies of other nations. We don’t need them to have a real space program, and in fact the Russians have proven to be an anchor, at least the way we chose to do business with them.

    What I have respect for is the idea that Putin and Chirac (and the Chinese) understand that dominance of space is essential for national security in the 21st century and they will do whatever it takes to assure the US does not have perpetual unfettered domination of LEO and celestial resources.

    Today we are winning, yes, by a healthy margin.

    But there is this little story called “The tortoise and the hare” and while we US-ians are sanguine and chant “Bush is the Man, Rah!” and “Bush can do no wrong! – - Hey!” the ESA cuts deals with China on Galileo and Putin arranges for Soyuz to be launched from a spaceport built on the equator by our supposed NATO allies.

    The “Great Game” of the 21st century will be about who will write the laws for the property ownership of celestial resources. We assume it will be Americans. Why should we assume that sanguinely?

    Another long term question is what language will be more prevalent away from the Earth in 2492 (the millenial anniversary of Columbus): English or Mandarin?

  • “What I have respect for is the idea that Putin and Chirac (and the Chinese) understand that dominance of space is essential for national security in the 21st century and they will do whatever it takes to assure the US does not have perpetual unfettered domination of LEO and celestial resources.”

    “Whatever it takes”? They’re currently doing very little to do that, at least nothing effective. US will dominate LEO through the military space program–NASA is irrelevant. As for the rest of the solar system, private enterprise will leave all government space programs in the dust once it takes off.

  • Harold LaValley

    So why do the Boeing’s and Lockheed hold onto the old premise of only doing business for Nasa or for the Military. They do nothing without contracts, when they themselves know without a capsule for crews to do manned flight in, there is no manned flights. So what is stopping them from building what is needed for exploration?

  • Bill White

    Machiavelli teaches that distant territories are better secured by colonists and settlers – -farmers and miners than by standing armies and navies. If China decides they want a “do-over” of that episode where the Ming Dynasty burned the ships, the coming US-Chinese space race will extend well into the 22nd century.

    As for American alt-space? Once one is built, China and Ukraine will be building copies within a decade thereafter, maybe sooner.

  • However, Zhu Di, the Ming emporer of China in the late 14th and early 15th century, forked out a huge sum of money and resources to building the treasure ship fleets of Zheng He. The emporer also built the Forbidden City in Beijing and began a massive rebuilding effort on the Great Wall. He broke the treasury in the process, and the Chinese people became skeptical of the emporer’s grand plans.

    At $2.5 billion per year, it is highly unlikely China will pursue human missions to the Moon any time soon, if at all. Indeed, like a rusty car with a brand new 12-cylinder engine, China’s economic engine may be too much for the archaic chasis to handle. I suspect China will have much more to deal with in the coming years which will be of greater importance…

  • Bill White

    Phil Smith, wouldn’t an appeal to Chinese nationalism or culturalism (not to Mao, but their pre-existing history as an ancient and proud civilization) provide Chinese leaders a rallying point to deflect internal dissatisfaction with domestic economic progress?

    If the Chinese population believes we in the West look down on their backwardness (such as NASA’s comments that their space program is not technologically mature, therefore no real cooperation) a sense of cultural pride could well motivate the citizens to accept poor gains in standards of living as the price needed to be paid to repay Western arrogance.

    If I were a leader in Beijing, I would fan such flames of cultural pride and the mistakes of the Ming Dynasty as a cynical but effective tool for stifling internal discontent with standards of living.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    Mr. Smith wrote:
    “At $2.5 billion per year, it is highly unlikely China will pursue human missions to the Moon any time soon, if at all.”

    Jim Oberg made some interesting points in his Senate testimony on Tuesday and also in a talk he gave at APL on Friday. One of the things he noted was that so far, China’s human spaceflight program has been largely incremental. They stretch fuel tanks, add solid boosters, upgrade equipment, etc. If they are going to send humans to the moon, they will have to take larger strides. Will they do that? I proposed that it might require some prodding on our part and that it might be a good idea for us to get them to spend more and more of their money on this rather than ballistic missiles.

    Mr. Smith also wrote:
    “Indeed, like a rusty car with a brand new 12-cylinder engine, China’s economic engine may be too much for the archaic chasis to handle. I suspect China will have much more to deal with in the coming years which will be of greater importance…”

    This is a valid point. I have seen one article from a couple of years ago indicating that China’s economic development may be overstated. Simply put, China may be cooking the books and stating higher growth rates than really exist. In addition, although their east coast is dynamic and growing (which is visible to foreigners), much of the rest of the country has not experienced much growth at all. I imagine that this can present lots of distortions but also lots of problems–people leave the rural center to go to the affluent east in search of jobs, but this creates strains in both places. In addition, we should wonder if this kind of growth is really sustainable.

    But Mr. Smith’s comment poses another question for my proposal of encouraging China to spend more money on human spaceflight: could we inadvertently create dangerous strain on an already strained system? This harks back to the claim that the Strategic Defense Initiative “broke the back” of the Soviet Union (a claim that I do not accept). The problem is that while you want your adversary to go away, if they collapse they can be more dangerous than they already are. So perhaps America’s goal should be to urge the Chinese to pursue sustainable peaceful development.

    That said, I’m not convinced that this is a real problem. The real problem is China spending money on missiles and other weapons pointed at Taiwan. What the moon race could do is help divert money already aimed at military/nationalistic pursuits.

  • China is in a race with the Indians, not us.

  • Dwayne A. Day

    I don’t think China is currently in a race with anybody. But they should be.