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Does the China card create a winning hand?

In the last couple of months some advocates of the US space program, including NASA administrator Mike Griffin, have been racheting up the rhetoric about the US in danger of being beaten back to the Moon by China. Unless the President and Congress commit more resources to NASA to close The Gap and accelerate other aspects of the exploration architecture, Chinese astronauts will land on the Moon before Americans return. And that, they claim, would be bad, although rarely are people very specific about the negative consequences of such a feat, other than to state vague concerns about “national security”.

A case in point is an editorial in today’s issue of Florida Today by John Glisch. Recalling the original Space Race between the US and USSR that caused President Kennedy to make his bold lunar mission goal, he writes:

Today, it may take that same kind of political gut-check by a new president to boost NASA’s return-to-the-moon plan or risk watching China plant the next flag on our celestial neighbor.

A potential accomplishment that’s already raising national security concerns as China continues its rise as a global economic and military power.

Later, he writes that such claims are “not bogus talk”. “Now leaders in Beijing are seriously pursuing ways to send taikonauts — their name for astronauts — to the moon before America’s scheduled return around 2020.”

Leaving aside the question for the time being of just how serious the consequences a Chinese-first human mission to the Moon would be, there’s the question of just how “seriously” China is pursuing a human lunar mission. Unfortunately for Glisch, his timing is bad:

China currently has no plan to send a man onto the moon, said Sun Laiyan, chief of the China National Space Administration, on Monday.

“I’ve read reports by foreign media saying that China would carry a manned moon landing in 2020, but I don’t think there has been such a plan,” Sun told a press conference in Beijing.

Sun did add that he believes that “one day China will for sure send its own astronauts to land on the moon”, but he certainly didn’t sound like someone who thought China would get there before 2020. Which makes you wonder just how strong the so-called “China card” is—or should be—in arguments on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for increasing NASA’s budget.

48 comments to Does the China card create a winning hand?

  • MarkWhittington

    If the Chinese “currently have no plans” for a human Moon expedition, they seem to be doing everything that is necessary to prepare for it, including learning the art of space flight with their Shenzhou missions and the Chang’e robotic precursors.

  • al Fansome

    It is hard to race against somebody that shows zero interest in racing us.

    The Soviets were clearly racing us, told us directly to our face in many ways, and put a large amount of national resources into doing so.

    China is clearly racing in other technology areas — but there is no direct evidence that putting a human on the Moon is one of them. Your data does not support your assertion. In fact, your data is so weak, it could be used to support an assertion that China is pursuing just about any kind of major national space program.

    For example, Taylor Dinerman makes a better case that China will race us to space solar power. There is certainly a much larger benefit to doing so — as it happens to address a critical national need of China. See:
    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/985/1

    Mr. Whittington — at least Mr. Dinerman has answered the question “why?”

    - Al

  • Birdy

    A friend of mine who works in a US federal agency, and

  • Birdy

    A friend of mine who works in a US federal agency, and who has worked on SBSP projects for many years, and who has been over to China recently, reports that the Chinese are extremely interested in SBSP.

    FWIW,

    - Birdy

  • Worse, Glisch’s editorial contains errors — like the $230 billion overestimate for a “lunar sprint” — that make the taxpayer case for a U.S. human lunar return look worse, not better. Great sales job. With editorialists like this, NASA’s human space flight programs need no enemies.

    I also have to say that all this misplaced focus on a non-existent Chinese human lunar program takes critical attention away from real U.S./China issues. Why do U.S. space leaders, media, and community waste so much breath on this, when China’s anti-satellite capabilities represent a demonstrated and real challenge to U.S. space capabilities?

    “they seem to be doing everything that is necessary to prepare for it”

    No they’re not, not by a long shot. To land taikonauts on the Moon, China has to complete some combination of heavy lift launch vehicle or in-space propellant provisioning development and testing, Earth departure stage development and testing, human lunar lander development and testing, and Earth return from lunar trajectory testing (and maybe development). These are all highly visible activities, but consistent with Laiyan’s current and prior statements, there is no evidence that China has any of these capabilities or activities underway, even in this age of Google Earth. In fact, these capabilities and activities don’t even appear in China’s planning through 2020.

    Heck, China still has yet to demonstrate in-space rendezvous and docking, another critical capability for a human lunar effort (but at least has plans to do so).

    Just like NASA has done in the decades since Apollo, China can fly taikonauts in LEO and conduct robotic missions until the cows come home, and they still won’t have a capability to send humans to the Moon.

    FWIW…

  • Chance

    Of course, in the US-Russia space race the Soviets didn’t own 4% of US public debt ($350B). We better not pull too far ahead in this “race”.

  • MarkWhittington

    “For example, Taylor Dinerman makes a better case that China will race us to space solar power.

    Space based solar power would be so much more affordable using ET materials, such as from the Moon.

  • Charles in Houston

    Sounds like someone is digging deep to find some vague threat that could lead us to spending additional billions.

    Next week someone will be trumpeting the threat from Lithuania – they might have a moon program. Or how about Nepal? They might want to go to the moon. We might be beaten.

    But more seriously, we should ignore vague “threats” especially when we have plenty of real threats. How about a huge and rapidly increasing federal deficit? How about a crippling dependence on foreign sources of energy? China is a large and technologically advanced country but to defend ourselves we need to have a healthy economy – that is the first step. A capable military might be a good second step. A Moon landing would be wonderful but is not connected with national security at all.

    I hope that the American people will have the wisdom to ignore cheap attempts to sell news by people who use phony crises to attract attention. Let’s go to the Moon for the right reason.

    Charles

  • Birdy

    Whittington said — Space based solar power would be so much more affordable using ET materials, such as from the Moon.

    Athough technically correct, this hand waves the huge amount of infrastructure that would need to be developed on the Moon.

    The NSSO report politely poo-poos putting the cart (ET materials) before the horse (initial implementation of SBSP). The NSSO report implies that lunar materials make sense for “expansion purposes”.

    From the NSSO report Appendix C
    “Many recommendations have been made to manufacture components for the satellites from lunar materials. This method requires placing very massive and complex infrastructure in Space and on the Moon in order to construct the power ystems.  It still requires extensive launch from Earth, in addition to the development of technologies to manufacture components from lunar regolith.  Thus the business case for SBSP gets pushed further out in time, and likely in cost if that is how the project starts. For expansion purposes however, lunar materials may be a valuable contributor.”

    - Birdy

  • Birdy

    Odd, the text did not wrap on the quote from the NSSO report.

    Here it is again:

    “Many recommendations have been made to manufacture components for the
    satellites from lunar materials. This method requires placing very massive and
    complex infrastructure in Space and on the Moon in order to construct the
    power ystems. It still requires extensive launch from Earth, in addition to the
    development of technologies to manufacture components from lunar regolith.
    Thus the business case for SBSP gets pushed further out in time, and likely in
    cost if that is how the project starts. For expansion purposes however, lunar
    materials may be a valuable contributor.”

  • MarkWhittington

    When people dismiss the idea of a space race between the United States and China, they tend ti think of a space race as being a single point goal of–say–landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. But I suggest (and have suggested) that the current space race has far more profound goals. The winner will be the country that proves that it can economo=ically exploit the Moon. Whether that consists of mining 3HE or building space based solar power or (likely) both remains to be seen. But the fact remains that the country that wins that race will own the future.

  • “Space based solar power would be so much more affordable using ET materials, such as from the Moon.”

    On the basis of what evidence? Developing and erecting the lunar surface infrastructure necessary to produce material on the scale needed to create solar-power satellites will take much longer and cost much more than using existing Earth infrastructure to do the same. Even the recent report on space solar power from the National Security Space Architect makes this point.

    “The winner will be the country that proves that it can economo=ically exploit the Moon.”

    There is little to nothing in the ESAS plan or current/planned Constellation work about “economo=ically [sic]” exploiting lunar resources, certainly not the materials and scale necessary to support space solar power.

    Constellation supports expeditions of four astronauts for a month or so at a time ranging kilometers from a south polar base. They might (big “might”) someday produce hundreds or thousands of kilograms of in-situ propellants using basic physical and chemical processes.

    Space solar power would require industrial-scale crews consisting of tens to hundreds of individuals (or their robotic equivalents) working year-round on the lunar surface to extract resources from hundreds, if not thousands, of square kilometers of regolith and turning those resources into complex components like alloys and silicon cells. That’s decades, if not centuries, into the future.

    Put simply, planting national flags in the 2020-30 timeframe will not affect which nations use lunar resources many decades and centuries from now. Spain and Portugal (and the Vikings), for example, did not inherit North America.

    “Whether that consists of mining 3HE”

    We need working fusion reactors that demonstrate substantial net positive energy output over long periods of time for lunar helium-3 mining to make any technical or economic sense. If the Moon is about fusion energy sources, then that’s an argument to kill Constellation (or at least the lunar components thereof) and put those tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into fusion research and plant development.

    “or building space based solar power”

    Regardless of whether the materials come from Earth or the Moon, we need vastly cheaper space transportation for space solar power to make any economic sense. If the Moon is about providing materials for space solar power, then that’s an argument to kill Constellation (or at least the lunar components thereof) and put those tens of billions of taxpayer dollars into launch vehicle and in-space transportation research and development.

    “But the fact remains that the country that wins that race will own the future.”

    How is this a “fact”? There are many, much more important areas of reseach and development — from information technology to genetics to energy research to medical research — that will have a much more profound impact on the future of nations than lunar resources.

    And again, even if China had a program to land a couple taikonauts on the Moon by 2020, there is an enormous leap from that capability to creating the infrastructure necessary to support large-scale lunar mining or space solar power.

    We in the United States have got to stop basing our space policy discussion with respect to China on non-existent human lunar programs and science fiction scenarios like helium-3 mining and solar power satellites, and start basing it on realities like anti-satellite capabilities, China’s desire to join the ISS, etc.

    Oy vey…

  • Mark vs. Anonymous:

    It all depends on your time scale. Lunar microchip production is not going to happen anytime soon. Initial, small-scale lunar oxygen production, or glass production, or other basic first-tier products, could happen quite soon with any infrastructure that actually gets people to the moon, including this one if it turns out to be capable of doing that, or Apollo if it had continued. As I have argued elsewhere, oxygen production even on a small scale has the potential to be of benefit to the Space Station or next generation applications satellites.

    While China (or anyone else) is not likely to be a threat to lunar access in the time scale that Mark implies, such a situation could easily sneak up on us and it would be unwise to completely abandon our deep space skills (or, more accurately, not to reaquire them).

    In short, I agree with Anonymous that this is not an issue for today. However, it is likely to be an issue in the not-to-distant future, and we would be extraordinarily unwise not to plan for that future today.

    Right now, the United States is the only nation on Earth with the demonstrated skills to conduct human operations on the lunar surface. That will not always be the case. The actions we take today will determine whether we reestablish ourselves in the club, or let others take over, whether that happens in this decade or twenty or thirty or fifty years down the road.

    – Donald

  • *

    A chief scientist with China’s Moon exploration programme, Ouyang Ziyuan, said that the country was planning to launch its first mission to the Moon in 2010.

    He reportedly told the Beijing Morning Post[in 1997]: “Our long-term goal is to set up a base on the Moon and mine its riches for the benefit of humanity.”

    Mystery solved?

    “I cannot speculate and won’t speculate on what China’s intensions are. I just don’t know that,” said Griffin. “As a matter of technical capability and political will, if the Chinese choose to do so, they can mount a lunar mission within a reasonable number of years, say a decade.” – Houston Chronicle, March 2007

    Apparently not. Maybe NASA doesn’t need more money. Maybe they need someone who has designed a rocket before to design rockets now. A quaint notion, I know. It’s like having someone who has worked on teeth before as your dentist. Who would ever think to do such a thing? Better to have a NASA that is openly hostile to the next Werner Von Braun:

    [T]he fact remains that designers simply do not think or work in the same way as analysts, and this does on occasion produce a certain cognitive dissonance. When it occurs in the context of a complex system development, catastrophe is a likely result. System engineering is the link which has evolved between the art and science of engineering. The system engineer designs little or nothing of the finished product; rather, he seeks a balanced design in the face of opposing interests and interlocking constraints. – Spaceref.com

    The useless are firmly in charge now.

  • SSP Fan

    WHITTINGTON: The winner will be the country that proves that it can economically exploit the Moon.

    If the goal is to “economically exploit the Moon” (or the Near Earth asteroids, or any other part of space), the first order of business is to cancel the Constellation program and to use the money to do something useful (like implementing some of the NSSO study report recommendations.)

    I will note that the NSSO report on SBSP makes a lot of specific recommendations, but not one of them is “fund the Ares 1″ or “fund the Ares V”.

    Others here are asking for “solutions” to the current political problem.

    SBSP would totally change the political calculus for funding NASA. Not because they want to “give NASA more money”. But because the American people are ready to buy a “clean totally renewable power” solution.

    It would be much easier for NASA to receive a major budget increase if they were asking for money for SBSP.

    It would be a very easy program to sell.

    NOTE: Dr. Tom Matula has done some scientific polling work on the “political market” for various space policy initiatives. He has tested the effectiveness of selling a SBSP initiative against an initiative to put humans on the Moon, or Mars, and several other space policy initiatives. SBSP generated BY FAR the most support in the test marketing of a NASA initiative.

    - SSP Fan

  • Al Fansome

    WROTE: A chief scientist with China’s Moon exploration programme, Ouyang Ziyuan, said that the country was planning to launch its first mission to the Moon in 2010.

    He reportedly told the Beijing Morning Post[in 1997]: “Our long-term goal is to set up a base on the Moon and mine its riches for the benefit of humanity.”

    Come on guys!

    Is a 10-year old quote the best you guys can do?

    And from a “scientist” for that matter!

    We all know how much credibility scientists have as spokesperson’s for national policy, and how much influence they have over policy. Considering there are hundreds and thousands of scientists working on the Chinese space program, this is a throwaway.

    If the story had said it was from the “Communist Party spokesperson” or a “People’s Liberation Army spokesman”, and if it was in the last few years, now that would have been news.

    - Al

  • reader

    We need working fusion reactors that demonstrate substantial net positive energy output over long periods of time for lunar helium-3 mining to make any technical or economic sense.

    This is frequently stated. I am not jumping in here to suggest anything about china, but its somewhat skewed argument.
    The researchers working on he3 fusion are all saying that there will be no he3 fusion until we get some from the moon for research purposes, because there simply is not enough of that stuff on earth, even for research, and making it artificially is about as efficient as making antimatter.
    Reference:
    http://fti.neep.wisc.edu/pubs?rm=wcsar

  • reader

    Lunar microchip production is not going to happen anytime soon. Initial, small-scale lunar oxygen production, or glass production, or other basic first-tier products, could happen quite soon
    Producing thin-film solar cells on lunar surface, directly on melted regolith is “relatively simple” ( if anything can be called that ) thanks to the vacuum of space. Getting them off from there into deep space is another matter.
    http://niac.usra.edu/files/library/meetings/annual/jun00/433Ignatiev.pdf

  • “The researchers working on he3 fusion are all saying that there will be no he3 fusion until we get some from the moon for research purposes, because there simply is not enough of that stuff on earth, even for research”

    All true. Maybe — big maybe given the massive quantities of lunar regolith would have to be processed for even a little helium-3 — it would make sense to gather research-scale amounts of helium-3 as part of a larger lunar effort. But even this would require an activity far different and more expensive than that planned under ESAS and for Constellation.

    And again, before undertaking a multi-hundred billion dollar effort to mine lunar helium-3 on an industrial scale, we need to see that our multi-billion dollar efforts to develop fusion actually produce working fusion plants. We don’t yet understand how to sustain a fusion reaction with net positive energy output and until we do (still projected to be some 50 years out), extraordinarily expensive efforts to gather large amounts of helium-3 or any other fusion input are putting the cart way before the horse.

    FWIW…

  • Anonymous

    Anoin.Space, $230B is the cost of all VSE lunar operations through 2025. It is not an overestimate, it comes straight out of ESAS.

  • “Anoin.Space, $230B is the cost of all VSE lunar operations through 2025. It is not an overestimate, it comes straight out of ESAS.”

    I just re-skimmed both the Executive Summary and Part 12 Cost of ESAS and saw no $230 billion estimate. ESAS goes out of its way to avoid actual budget figures, expressing cost relationships as factors instead. But I may have missed a reference all this time, so please clue-by-four me with a page quote if it exists. Thanks in advance.

    IIRC, the VSE budget was a little over $100 billion through 2020, which ESAS does roughly reference in Part 12.7, claiming $104 billion through 2018. Based on that, to be honest, if the $230 billion estimate does exist in ESAS, I don’t see how they’d get to it. That would mean that after spending $100-104 billion over about 15 years to develop a human lunar capability, ESAS somehow spends another $126-130 billion over the five to seven years remaining from 2018/20-2025 to just operate that capability. Ares I/Ares V will be among, if not the, most inefficient launch vehicles in the world. But this would imply that their year-to-year operations costs, and the costs of other Constellation elements, are approximately double to triple their development costs (assuming their development costs could be spread evenly over the years). That’s so shocking as to be incredulous, at least to me. And if true, it shows just how unsustainable the ESAS approach is.

    I’m guessing, but if the $230 billion figure exists, it must be covering other elements, like some Mars vehicle development. And if that’s the case, then my original statement stands — Glisch quoted a bad number that is not representative of human lunar return costs.

    FWIW… again, please clue-by-four me if I’m missing something.

  • “I’m guessing, but if the $230 billion figure exists, it must be covering other elements, like some Mars vehicle development.”

    Following up on my earlier statement above, I think this is the case. According to this article, Constellation assumes human Mars launches starting in 2028-2031. To meet that schedule, the plan must assume that Mars hardware is in development in the late teens and early 2020s. That probably explains the discrepency between the $100 billion or so in spending on Constellation development through 2018/20, and a $230 billion figure through 2025 that likely cannot be explained through lunar operations alone.

    But again, someone should clue-by-four me with a page reference if a lunar-only $230 billion through 2025 figure appears in ESAS. I’d be very interested if it exists.

    FWIW…

  • “Following up on my earlier statement above, I think this is the case. According to this article,”

    Edit — here’s the article (add http://www.):

    http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2007/11/26/219877/nasa-manned-mars-mission-details-emerge.html

    Apologies…

  • Ray

    I can’t picture any scenario where China is a threat because of a manned lunar program, and the answer to that threat is ESAS.

    One thought I had with the recent European Galileo news (I thought it was a clever way to bring up the subject, but now I see Jeff’s already posted on it) is to respond to the (perceived?) threat by joining with other countries in the ESAS effort to make it go faster, and to solidify international relations. I know the difficulties with this, but this approach could be a response to that kind of threat. (I’m not an ESAS fan, but I’m assuming for the sake of argument that it’s the plan to go with).

    I was thinking about some kind of deal like “could you build a refueler, compatible with Arianne, U.S. launchers, etc on the one side, and with ESAS and some subset of satellites or other missions on the other, as your contribution to the lunar effort? Maybe do that instead of Galileo … maybe in barter you’ll get some lunar access and some GPS sats … as well as business for your launcher.

  • Paul F. Dietz

    The researchers working on he3 fusion are all saying that there will be no he3 fusion until we get some from the moon for research purposes, because there simply is not enough of that stuff on earth, even for research, and making it artificially is about as efficient as making antimatter.

    This is not correct. We can make enough 3He on earth for research and development. It can be made in fission reactors, by neutron bombardment of lithium and allowing the tritium so produced to decay. Now, this cannot be the basis for a 3He economy, since the amount of 3He produced is too small (the fusion power it would allow would be a small fraction of the fission reactor power, so why not just build the fission reactors only), but it could supply a demonstration reactor, if perhaps not a full scale one run for its entire design lifetime.

  • The current again-emerging competitive nature of international system – if kept on reasonable level – can be highly useful for intensive space and Moon programs. Apollo was cut down mainly thanks to détente with USSR and after Cold war Moon policies practically finished. Only after EU’s growing global ambition and East Asia’s economic and political growth, countries are again competing to gain RELATIVE advantage of being there first (or among the firsts; or – in some cases – being there at all.) If US still would be the only one able to lead meaningful Moon/space program it would take much longer till humans go there again. If at all ..

  • reader

    http://fti.neep.wisc.edu/pdf/fdm1291.pdf
    “A Strategy for D-3He Fusion Development;”
    Good short paper.
    My memory let me down. You are correct, mr. Dietz. They say there

    Economically acessible 3He on Earth exists in sufficient quantities ( a few hundred kg ) for an engineering development program, but not for a fusion economy.

    So i dont know what the holdup is.

  • Paul F. Dietz

    So i dont know what the holdup is.

    Fusion is just hard, and the economics doesn’t look all that great, even with 3He.

  • Al Fansome

    CNN has a puff piece out about China. It quotes “analysts” who provide zero data to backup their “beliefs” that China wants to put taikonauts on the Moon.

    AT LEAST the story acknowledges that it is “belief”.

    I will just point out Deming’s rule, again.

    “In God we trust; all others must bring data.” — W. Edwards Deming

    Deming was a serious analyst & his rule is critical to effective executive decision-making. Making major national decisions, solely based on belief that is not backed up by hard data, is a really bad idea. Those urging us to make these major national decisions need to provide the data.

    Mr. Spock should understand this.

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/space/11/26/china.space.race/

    “Officials have recently backpedaled from goals of putting a taikonaut (the Chinese version of an astronaut or cosmonaut) on the moon by 2020, but analysts believe that is still a pressing ambition.”

    and

    “Analysts believe the lure of such potent resources is one of the reasons behind China’s exploration of space.”

    - Al

  • Paul: Fusion is just hard, and the economics doesn’t look all that great, even with 3He.

    Once again, I find myself agreeing with Paul, though hopefully the increasing price of alternative sources of energy may change the economics. Environmental issues aside, with China increasingly in the market, and supplies being depleted, the price of oil and natural gas (and ultimately currently plentifal coal) are unlikely to go down much again.

    However, it is worth noting that fusion for high-velocity spacecraft propulsion looks considerably more promising, if you can get someone to pay for developing it. You only need to confine half the magnetic “bottle,” or inertial confinement fusion is practically made for this application. . . .

    – Donald

  • Donald F. Robertson wrote:
    “In short, I agree with Anonymous that this is not an issue for today. However, it is likely to be an issue in the not-to-distant future, and we would be extraordinarily unwise not to plan for that future today.”

    Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently said:
    “[The] Chinese people’s dream of flying to the moon [which they have had] for more than [a] 1,000 years has started to materialize”

    I think you nailed it Donald.

  • Paul F. Dietz

    Once again, I find myself agreeing with Paul, though hopefully the increasing price of alternative sources of energy may change the economics.

    I have to strain considerably to imagine a plausible scenario in which fusion turns out to be even competitive with fission, for far into the future, even ignoring development costs for fusion. The problem is that fusion reactors are just inherently much more complex, and hence expensive, than conventional fission reactors. Like fission breeder reactors, they make the expensive part of the power system (the capital equipment) more expensive, while economizing on the cheap part (raw material for fuel).

    I would like to see the government fund a convincing demonstration of a scaled-up system for seawater uranium extraction, just so we could shut down these programs that are, in effect, predicated on uranium becoming too expensive.

  • Mike Fazah

    I have to strain considerably to imagine a plausible scenario in which fusion turns out to be even competitive with fission, for far into the future, even ignoring development costs for fusion.

    At the risk of getting too far off-topic, fission reactors based on Thorium transmutation and U-233 breeding could easily extend fission’s applicability far into the future, thus making conventional fusion approaches impracticable for terrestrial power production. The view of fusion as a viable candidate for very advanced applications is also a stretch, due to the need for tremendously high energy gain. Bottom line is that He-3 mining is a hopelessly weak justification for any lunar exploration program.

  • Paul F. Dietz

    Well, I’m dubious about thorium-based breeding cycles also, for similar reasons as apply to fusion. But your point (as I read it) that they are relatively more plausible than fusion is taken.

  • Al Fansome

    I agree with both Anonymous and Donald and Mr. Hermit that this is clearly a long-term issue. (Read Xinhua News Story copied below, which has quotes from several Chinese space leaders) I think a smart focus on China can be productive. However, invoking a race that does not exist is counterproductive.

    What we need to do to win a “race” and what you do in response to a long-term challenge, can be completely different.

    In order to answer this “long-term” challenge, there are a number of things that we need to do — most of which involve investing in “leap frog” capabilities from building a commercial space industry. (As opposed to investing in Apollo Redux, which is (at best) a leap sideways.)

    - Al

    No timetable for manned moon landing

    Source: Xinhua News | Updated: 11-26-2007

    China currently has no plan to send a man onto the moon, said Sun Laiyan, chief of the China National Space Administration, on Monday.

    “I’ve read reports by foreign media saying that China would carry a manned moon landing in 2020, but I don’t think there has been such a plan,” Sun told a press conference in Beijing.

    “So far, our moon mission only includes unmanned probing projects. The success of the Chang’e-1 project has helped us train a professional team and will support the mission’s next aim of landing a rover on the moon,” Sun said.

    The launch of the orbiter kicks off the first step of China’s three-stage moon mission, which will lead to a moon landing and launch of a moon rover at around 2012. In the third phase, another rover will land on the moon and return to earth with lunar soil and stone samples for scientific research at around 2017.

    “But I believe one day China will for sure send its own astronauts to land on the moon. I hope I can see it happen,” Sun said.

    It’s not the first time that the Chinese government denied an existing manned moon landing plan.

    In October, Luan Enjie, chief commander of China’s lunar orbiter project, also told reporters that China has no plan or timetable for a manned moon landing for now.

    “A manned moon landing is a project with great difficulties, high risks and huge investments. A wish-list approach is not the way to go about it,” Luan said.

    “Many factors have to be taken into account to carry out such a project, such as economic budgets, technological level, and whether it is a must for current scientific studies,” Luan said.

    “So, it’s too early to talk about manned landings on the moon for the time being,” he added.

  • Al Fansome

    BTW, in reading today’s news (thanks to Mr. Foust), I discovered what I think is the most illuminating media coverage (yet) on Mr. Musk.

    http://www.inc.com/magazine/20071201/entrepreneur-of-the-year-elon-musk.html

    Entrepreneur of the Year: Elon Musk

    What struck me is Elon’s penchant for micro-management, and control, plus his innate desire to always go for the BIG win — throughout all phases of his career. It really comes through in this in depth story by Inc Magazine. If Elon was not so wickedly smart and hard working, these personal characteristics would guarantee failure.

    It must be a very interesting experience to work at SpaceX.

    - Al

  • Phil Probert

    I will bet that not a single person who has discussed fusion on this thread has any idea how much the U.S. government spends on fusion research.

    It’s ridiculous to talk about Helium-3 without even a basic understanding of the current funding level and the estimates of how much it will take to achieve even “break-even.”

  • Paul, I do not disagree with your analysis of fusion economics.

    Mike:

    Whether fusion has an economic future or not, that future is too far in the, well, future, to allow He-3 mining to help us in starting up trade with a lunar base. Even if Paul is wrong — and I don’t think he is — I fully agree with you.

    Phil: Since I have two friends who are working (or, in one case, have recently worked) on inertial confinement fusion (for nuclear weapon simulation, not power generation, but I would guess that the knowledge gained in the former is indirectly applicable to the latter), I happen to know that the United States spends rather a lot on fusion research, broadly defined. Exactly how much is, of course, a secret, but it is undoubely a lot.

    Also, I believe Japan and Europe both have major magnetic confinement efforts, and I’d be surprised if the Russians had completely abandoned this line of research or if the Chinese were not starting it.

    – Donald

  • Phil Probert

    Quite a lot?

    For nuclear weapons research?

    So you don’t know.

  • Phil, that is correct, I don’t know.

    – Donald

  • Paul Dietz

    I will bet that not a single person who has discussed fusion on this thread has any idea how much the U.S. government spends on fusion research.

    Actually, I do have an idea. The amount spent on magnetic fusion research is not terribly large, less each year than the average annual cost of a single shuttle launch (even before the post-Columbia reduction in flight rate). In constant dollars MFE spending is far below its peak back during the first energy crisis. Inertial fusion is more, but that is more properly accounted for under preservation of the nuclear weapon technology skill base.

    The relatively paultry amount spent on magnetic fusion reflects, IMO, the relative promise of this energy technology vs. alternatives. If it were such a slamdunk for lower energy costs then you’d be seeing more investment there.

  • “I will bet that not a single person who has discussed fusion on this thread has any idea how much the U.S. government spends on fusion research.”

    Funding for DOE’s Office of Fusion Research has bounced around an approximate annual funding range of $250-500 million in recent years. The funding variously goes towards ITER (the new international test reactor) development, other lab facilities, university research, and overhead. See (add http://www):

    .science.doe.gov/obp/FY_08_Budget/FES.pdf

    “I happen to know that the United States spends rather a lot on fusion research, broadly defined. Exactly how much is, of course, a secret, but it is undoubely a lot.”

    I don’t know what your definition of “a lot” is for fusion research, but inertial confinement activities to support nuke weapons stewardship maintenance is also conducted by DOE (not DOD) and has bounced around in the same approximate annual funding range of about $250-500 million in recent years. Most goes towards develpment of the new NIF (National Ignition Facility). See (add http://):

    goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/summary_0199-1561594_ITM

    So the annual U.S. total for federal fusion research is in the $500 million to $1 billion range, but only about half of that goes towards power, not weapons, applications.

    I’m not arguing whether it’s too much or too little. Those are just the amounts.

    “It’s ridiculous to talk about Helium-3 without even a basic understanding of the current funding level and the estimates of how much it will take to achieve even “break-even.”

    Agreed. In a thumbnail sketch, the timeline on the ITER website assumes that working fusion is still 50 years into the future. See (add http://www):

    .iter.org/a/index_nav_2.htm

    Assuming a U.S. federal funding level of $500 million per year, that implies that we have $25 billion (and many technical breakthroughs) to go before we have a useful, prototype fusion power source. Undoubtedly, this is an underestimate, probably by a factor of several, as it ignores international cost-sharing and the likelihood that actual prototype development will be considerably more expensive than the research facilities built and planned to date. A good estimate probably can’t be known until we’re much farther down the fusion development path.

    FWIW…

  • Paul: The relatively paultry amount spent on magnetic fusion reflects, IMO, the relative promise of this energy technology vs. alternatives. If it were such a slamdunk for lower energy costs then you’d be seeing more investment there.

    I only wish that were true. Unfortunately, I suspect it has far more to do with the current Administration’s hostility toward non-fossil sources of energy.

    Anonymous: Thank’s for the budget figures. Is none of the inertial confinement work in the black world? Given the application, I would be surprised if that were so.

    My friends work(ed) on the NIF.

    – Donald

  • “Is none of the inertial confinement work in the black world?”

    Yes, a lot of the research papers in this area have companion classified version, but I obviously have no insight into those black budgets (and couldn’t talk about them if I did). My 2-bit guess is that unless there’s another, large facility like NIF in the black world, then the black budget is a fraction of the white budget. The references above were obviously from the unclassified DOE nuclear weapon stockpile stewardship program. There’s actually quite a bit out there on those activites (add http://www):

    .nnsa.doe.gov/ –> covers all DOE nuclear security programs, including stockpile stewardship and naval reactors

    .nnsa.doe.gov/defense.htm –> covers stockpile stewardship specifically

    FWIW…

  • thejournalist

    I’m humbled by the shear volume of credible information on this site.
    I’m old enough to remember the Carter push for nuclear power tech and have been disappointed by the progress towards a viable fusion reactor. This would seem to be a worthy project deserving more support.
    The article is interesting, I have been using this argument with a fair amount of success. TBH I’m getting desperate. Maybe we should put a couple of missiles on the shuttles and rename them USS G.W. Bush etc. Placing NASA’s budget under the umbrella of cash that is the defense dept.

  • thejournalist

    …winks at anonymous…. :)

  • Paul Dietz

    I only wish that were true. Unfortunately, I suspect it has far more to do with the current Administration’s hostility toward non-fossil sources of energy.

    I didn’t say it would be US federal government investment.

  • Al Fansome

    ANON: Agreed. In a thumbnail sketch, the timeline on the ITER website assumes that working fusion is still 50 years into the future.

    ITER is focused on demonstrating Deuterium-Tritium fusion, which produces significant radioactive waste products because D-T reactions give off a high energy neutron that can only be stopped by massive containment walls. The walls become radioactive as result of being constantly bombarded by these neutrons. Over time the bombardment also weakens them. This all generates radioactive watste which will need to be disposed of.

    Deuterium-Helium 3 reactions are much less radiocative because they don’t produce that high energy neutron, which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, they require a higher ignition temperature that D-T reactions.

    If/when ITER succeeds, which Anonymous suggests will take 50 years, we then need to invest in developing an even bigger and more efficient D-HE3 reactor design. So you need to add some number of additional years on top of the 50 years for ITER to generate an estimate for when HE3 on the Moon might become a valuable resource.

    For a good summary of this issue, read pages 84-88 of “Entering Space” by Robert Zubrin.

    - Al

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