Mon. Mar 27th, 2023

China’s space program reached a huge milestone last week with the launch of the Long March-5 rocket from the new Wenchang Space Launch Center, the country’s fourth launch site. This new heavy-lift booster gives China a rocket matched in power only by the US Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle: about 25 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO).

China deserves credit for creating a space development plan in 1992 called Project 921 and then carrying it out. Initially, the Chinese space program was derided as heavily derived from the Russian launch program, but with the new family of Long March rockets using modern design and propellants such as refined RP-1 kerosene and liquid hydrogen, China should now be regarded as a class space force.

At the moment, only two countries can safely send people into space: Russia and China. In addition, only two countries can launch medium payloads into space, the United States and China. Only one nation can do both. With payloads and crewed launch capabilities, China will be able to build a modular space station in the next decade that will welcome visitors from Europe and elsewhere and will almost certainly outlast NASA’s International Space Station.

While China has targeted a space station and has yet to set a definitive timeline for going into space, it should be noted that the country now has the capacity to mount a human mission to the moon, if it so desires. The Long March-5 rocket is powerful enough to do orbit for lunar landings and to push a payload of about eight tons into lunar orbit (LTO).

“By launching four of them into low Earth orbit and bringing them together, it would be possible for the Chinese to build a manned lunar mission with nothing more than that rocket and nothing more than Apollo technology,” the former said. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to House Science. Space and Technology Commission in September 2011. “And I’ve — I’ve actually written down in the past how that mission would work from a technical perspective. So with the Long March-5, the Chinese inherently possessed the ability to go back to the moon if they want.”

Mike Griffin, NASA's administrator under George W. Bush, wanted to stay in that position for Obama.  But the president rejected Griffin's Constellation plan - and Griffin himself.  If a Republican wins the 2016 election, Griffin could return to NASA or elsewhere to shape policy.
Enlarge / Mike Griffin, NASA’s administrator under George W. Bush, wanted to stay in that position for Obama. But the president rejected Griffin’s Constellation plan – and Griffin himself. If a Republican wins the 2016 election, Griffin could return to NASA or elsewhere to shape policy.


Five years after Griffin made those comments, the Long March-5 missile has now flown, proving China’s ability to design a large missile around its new YF-100 engines. China has now set its sights on developing the Long March-9, a superheavy lift rocket in the Saturn V class of the Apollo program. This high-powered missile will likely remain for about 15 years after its debut and is expected to have a payload-to-LEO capability of at least 130 tons and a payload-to-LTO capability of at least 50 tons.

American uncertainty

Chinese advances in space stem from uncertainty about America’s launch effort. While the US should have the ability to launch US astronauts in late 2018 or 2019 thanks to NASA’s decision to fund SpaceX and Boeing, it’s not clear where the space agency will go after that. NASA is deep into building its own super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which has about three times the lift capacity of the Long March-5 and should fly by the end of this decade. But there’s no clear plan for its use — and even if NASA did announce specific plans, those plans are likely to be scrambled by the next president of the United States.

This uncertainty comes as the United States finds itself in a messy transition from a state-run space program to a — possibly — more commercial one. The rise of China’s space program offers an interesting contrast between socialism and capitalism in space. From NASA’s inception through the early 2000s, America had a largely socialist approach to space exploration. Ironically, it was the centralized, top-down Apollo program that helped show the world that the democratic and capitalist United States was superior to the Soviet Union in space, while the Soviet Union’s own space race was largely run by independent competitive designs. desks.

But with the rise of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other US-based rocket companies, the United States now has an opportunity to embrace a much more fully capitalist approach to spaceflight. Both companies are also developing super-heavy lift rockets, the Falcon Heavy and New Glenn, respectively, which have lift capacities roughly equivalent to NASA’s Space Launch System. Some officials, such as former deputy NASA administrator Lori Garver, have noted the incoherence of a centralized, large government missile program trying to compete with private companies. For now, however, Congress appears to be content with the Apollo model of a centralized government program.

Even if lawmakers do, it’s worth considering that the United States could also go back to the moon within the next decade, even without waiting for SpaceX or Blue Origin. Just as the Long March-5 is powerful enough to land humans on the moon, so is the privately developed Delta IV Heavy rocket, manufactured by United Launch Alliance in Alabama.

It remains unclear whether the United States will maintain its centralized approach to space exploration, or even whether the massive savings promised by privately developed rocket companies will ultimately convince skeptical lawmakers in Congress to forego a big government approach to building rockets. . While Washington figures that out, we can be sure that China will continue to make progress toward its own spaceflight goals.

Image by VCG via Getty Images

By akfire1

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