NASA

Griffin in China

NASA administrator Mike Griffin is in China right now meeting with his counterparts there and getting tours of various facilities. (Apparently not on the list, surprisingly, is the Chinese manned launch center in Jiuquan; a NASA spokesperson told AFP simply that those plans “did not work out”.) As has been the case since the plans for the trip were finalized, NASA has been maintaining low expectations for the trip, saying it was nothing more than “an introductory kind of meeting”.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that Chinese officials have made a four-point proposal for US-China space cooperation, but those points are pretty vague: strengthen communications, help annual meetings, “jointly explore fields” of potential future cooperation, and “eliminate obstacles and boost mutual trust”. The report didn’t give any indication of what response NASA had to the proposal.

However, should NASA even be discussing cooperation with China? That’s the thesis of an op-ed in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle by Mark Whittington, who believes that military, foreign policy, and human rights issues should make the US wary of any partnership with China in space. And Whittington brings up the R-word: race:

Does that policy mean a space race between China and the United States? Probably. But that is not something that should be feared, but rather welcomed. Competition breeds progress and innovation.

As I’ve mentioned a number of times before, there’s little evidence of a space race brewing between the US and China (despite occasional hyperbolic claims to the contrary), nor would a race necessarily be as beneficial as Whittington claims. After all, some might argue that we’re still recovering from the first space race with the Soviet Union.

7 comments to Griffin in China

  • Apparently not on the list, surprisingly, is the Chinese manned launch center in Jiuquan; a NASA spokesperson told AFP simply that those plans “did not work out”

    Surprising indeed, but why? Surely Griffin and Gerstenmaier wanted to see the manned space center, so perhaps the Chinese built a new wall around it. But there again why? Embarrassment with their low tech programme? Covering up military involvement? Payback for the refusal to cooperate on ISS?

  • Jeff: After all, some might argue that we’re still recovering from the first space race with the Soviet Union.

    Jeff, that is true only if one considers landings on the moon, major construction projects in orbit, and two or three money-making industries a poor performance after only fifty years on the most difficult frontier humanity has ever tackled. Far more likely, we’re failing to recover from wholly unrealistic political, economic, and technical expectations.

    For that, I do blame Apollo. Space advocates continuously confuse what is possible with what is politically, economically, and technically achievable. There is far too little thought and effort applied to “how do we get from here to there?” with every single step along the way, “how are we going to pay for” each of those steps? and “how long will it take?”

    One great example is the all-to-common assumption that suborbital tourism and orbital tourism for large numbers of people are one and the same, and that just because we may soon have one, the other will, through some magical invluence of “the free market,” be achieved a few years later. For obvious technical reasons, let alone economic ones, this outcome is unlikely in the extreme — but it doesn’t keep people from believing it. Or, more alarmingly, simply assuming it without any noticeable thought.

    – Donald

    P.S. – Lest I be misunderstood, I do believe that orbital tourism is likely to be the next successful industry in orbit — in many ways, it already is. It is the expected prices and time scales for vastly reduced prices that I find unrealistic, not the end goal.

  • Chris Mann

    >”One great example is the all-to-common assumption that suborbital tourism and orbital tourism for large numbers of people are one and the same, and that just because we may soon have one, the other will, through some magical invluence of “the free market,” be achieved a few years later.”

    The free market achieved it in 1991 when it put Helen Sharman into LEO, there is now a waiting list of over a dozen for Soyuz rides. If Lockheed/Elon gets it into their heads to market spaceflight as a mark of status (like diamonds and Bugatti Veyrons) I’m fairly certain that in the population of Malibu alone there would be atleast 100 potential customers.

    The biggest market however will be in commercial microgravity research, and both flying astronauts and offering timeshare of microgravity platforms to nations that can’t afford to run their own programs.

    >”There is far too little thought and effort applied to “how do we get from here to there?” with every single step along the way, “how are we going to pay for” each of those steps? and “how long will it take?”"

    What I find particularly frustrating is that there is no emphasis on “why are we going”. Particularly, “Why are we going to spend $25B on new launch systems that already exist on the commercial market,” and “Why are we going to put four astronauts on the moon to look at rock strata when a robot can do it for 1/100th the price.”

  • The biggest market however will be in commercial microgravity research,

    The value of microgravity research has been part of the space fan kool-aid for years now. But where is the evidence that corporations will want to spend significant amounts of their own money on it?

  • Chris Mann

    There isn’t evidence. There isn’t even a commercially accessable platform yet to begin to collect that evidence. MIR likely would have been that platform, but NASA had it deorbited to stop commercial use.

    Perhaps affordable protein crystallization facilities with good microgravity will be useful for the pharmaceutical and material science industry. Perhaps they won’t be. We simply do not know at this time.

  • Regarding microgravity products, both of you are wrong. It is true that there have been no factories in LEO, nor are there likely to be in the immediate future. However, knowledge gained from protein crystallization experiments has had a significant impact on terrestrial processes. Commercial microgravity research is unlikely to be the largest commercial market in space in the foreseeable future, but to say that it has no value is just as wrong. Also, corporations do spend money on this research, just not very much. Part of that is because not very much is needed: you can get the information you need from one crystal, so why grow a thousand?

    Chris, I agree with you that orbital tourism is currently a successful market, but you missed my qualification for large numbers of people. However, when you say, If Lockheed/Elon gets it into their heads to market spaceflight as a mark of status (like diamonds and Bugatti Veyrons) I’m fairly certain that in the population of Malibu alone there would be at least 100 potential customers, that is pure speculation. While it may well prove to be true, no one is going to bet grandma’s money on it, so the money to finance it’s development will remain severely constrained. Also, it involves the second generation of a rocket whose first generation has yet to fly successfully, and thus remains several (probably many) years in the future.

    – Donald

  • A followup about why Griffin’s plans to visit the manned facilities “didn’t work out”

    Quoting from Florida Today

    Griffin did not get to visit the Chinese launch site or command and control center. He had been invited to go to the launch site far in the Gobi desert, but said today that the offer did not include permission to go inside the buildings and see actual spacecraft preparation work under way. Griffin declined that offer.

    “I’m not a tourist. This is in fact my profession,” Griffin said today. “I have seen a lot of launch pads in my time and didn’t need to go that far to see another one.”