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Who Is Moving Forward in Space?

by Marsha Freeman

Oct. 25, 2015—The most striking aspect of this year's annual International Astronautics Con gress (IAC), held in Jerusalem Oct. 12-16, was the stark difference in policy and perspective among the major space-faring nations. While the U.S. space program is stalled by the fight between an Administration that has for seven years tried to kill America's manned space exploration program, and a Congress that has never mounted a serious fight against that policy, and the Russian space program that has a plan for an ambitious long-term effort to rebuild its space capabilities through new, more advanced technology, China moves steadily ahead, committed by the leadership of that nation to carry out its long-term plan.

The venue of the IAC created an atmosphere of uncertainty, if not concern for the personal safety of the participants, as the violence escalated between Palestinians and the highly-visible and well-armed Israeli Defense Force. At the start of the Congress, there were on the order of 2,000 registrants—about 1,000 fewer than for last year's meeting in Toronto, Canada. From Mount Scopis in Jerusalem, one can see the wall that has been built by the Israelis, designed to keep the Palestinians confined to the West Bank. The "success" of such an apartheid policy can be seen by the "success" of trying to build a wall to keep immigrants from the war-ravaged Middle East from fleeing to Europe.

Each major space agency stressed the importance of international cooperation, which is the hallmark of the 64-nation International Astronautical Federation, the organizer of each year's Congress. In his remarks on the first day of the Congress, Xu Dazhe, who heads the China National Space Agency (CNSA), reported that China has cooperation agreements with 30 nations, and, in addition, has more opportunities for international programs through its new Silk Road policy, and its participation in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

While international cooperation was stressed also by Russia, Europe, and the U.S., the motivation was less to augment already-committed national projects, and more to try to mobilize additional resources to make possible innovative programs that are unlikely to be funded by national governments, in the current global financial crisis. So while Russia and Europe presented ambitious plans for the future, it was well recognized that it is China that will unquestionably carry out theirs.

China on the Move

China has a ambitious schedule for testing new capabilities in its national space program over the next two years. These will include the launch of a second, small Tiangong space lab, which will be visited by a new cargo craft as well as a manned crew. In-orbit refueling of spacecraft and new docking approaches will be tested. In its lunar program, China plans to launch the Chang'e-5 sample return mission in 2017, and looks toward a later Chang'e-4 mission which will do a challenging, first-time landing on the far side of the Moon.

Russia and the European Space Agency have a burgeoning array of space projects already underway with China. These include various satellite systems and space science projects, and is highlighted by China's invitation for other nations to be participants in their up-coming Earth-orbital space station. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has been dogged for years by questions about the prohibition under Congressional mandate from bilateral cooperation with China's space program. Opposed to the policy, and increasingly willing to say so, at the IAC Bolden observed that he was the only head of a space agency at the Congress that is not talking to the Chinese. But this is "temporary," he said. "My successor will have a different policy." The policy will change, Bolden said, because if not, in the future, "we'll be on the outside looking in."

Remaking the Russian Space Program

The IMF-imposed austerity of the 1990s ravaged the former Soviet space program, and delivered to penury outstanding members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The Buran space shuttle, the Energia heavy-lift rocket, and capabilities in satellites and space science were put on ice (or into museums). The administration of President Putin is determined to return Russia to its former preeminent role in global space exploration. This past Summer, all of Russia's space and related institutions were consolidated under the roof of United Rocket and Space Corporation.

In a presentation at the Congress on Oct. 14, Rocket and Space Corporation Energia President Vladimir Solntsev, presented a series of sweeping new initiatives that are planned, which will transform Russia's space infrastructure. Russia is planning a new-generation crew module to replace the Soyuz; a new series of Angara rockets to replace the Proton; and a crew module and transport system for its first manned deep space missions (the Russians have never taken cosmonauts beyond Earth orbit). The plan includes an entirely new family of vehicles to travel to the Moon, deliver cargo there, and later land people, with the aim to industrially develop our nearest neighbor.

Rocket and Space Corporation Energia
Vladimir Solntsev, President of Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, presented a review of Russia’s ambitious space plans on October 14, at the International Astronautical Federation.

"We don't want to just fly to the Moon, land on it, then put a stick on it, and then go back," Solntsev told EIR. "We will try to organize an actual operation on the lunar surface. We should use our natural satellite as much as possible. We are ready to cooperate with any country, if it coincides with our goals, tasks, and perspective. It does not depend on their nationality." For Russia, Solntsev made clear, the manned lunar step will depend upon international cooperation.

In his conference presentation, Solntsev discussed a roadmap which would see first unmanned and then manned test flights of its new crew vehicle to the Earth-orbital International Space Station, through the rest of this decade. Unmanned flights to the Moon to test a new vehicle in deep space would take place in the middle of the next decade, along with new transport capabilities and unmanned landings, as robotic precursors for manned missions. A manned landing on the Moon would then take place in 2029.

Russia has been forced to delay some of these projects, and stretch out others, thanks to the international warfare of the one-half cut in oil prices, and waves of sanctions against its industrial and high-technology sectors (in apparent disregard for the fact that only Russia can deliver crew to the International Space Station). But the timeline and schedule are less important than the fact that Russia has is a plan.

While Russian space and high-technology industries have been affected by the sanctions, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was able to announce Oct. 1 that within two years, Russia will be able to switch to domestically-produced electronic components for its critical GLONASS navigational satellite system, which had relied on imports from the West. Russia is negotiating with China to sell rocket engines for China's lunar program, which would reduce the impact on Russia's industry of the U.S. Congress' attempt to stop the American import of the engines. The European Space Agency is already considering significant participation in Russia's up-coming unmanned lunar missions, and Russia is contributing to Europe's two missions to Mars.

But it is the international realignment of economic and political forces, through institutions including through China's One Belt, One Road initiative, the BRICS Development Bank, and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank which will provide the resources and opportunities for Russia to lead global space exploration.

Selling Off the U.S. Space Program

Meanwhile, the country that likes to proclaim itself the "leader" in space, is on a fast-track to self-destruction.

Aside from the magnificent results from its space science and planetary programs, the Obama Administration can only brag that it is turning over responsibility for space exploration for the next two decades to the international community and the private sector. Accordingly, private companies are to deliver cargo and crew to the space station, develop whatever capabilities the U.S. will have for sustained exploration and exploitation of the Moon, and produce whatever else NASA can offload. After the government does some cursory, unmanned inventory of the resources, "I think we need to step back and work with private industry and look for public-private partnerships to go do the Moon," said NASA official Bill Gerstenmaier in Jerusalem. When President Obama canceled the Constellation program in 2010, it eliminated the U.S. program to go back to the Moon.

The Administration has tried to convince the naive that it has a space plan: a trip by astronauts to cislunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) to pick up a piece of an asteroid that has been brought there, and a 2030s manned mission to Mars, which uses fundamentally conventional propulsion and other technologies, which, in fact, make the trip wholly unsafe. The first, the asteroid mission, has been ridiculed by the scientific community, and attacked by the Congress.

NASA's latest report, titled "Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration," which was released just before the IAC meeting, did not dampen criticism of the Administration's proposals, but only provided a target for attack. The entire plan, based on a space agency budget basically remaining at the same level as today's, is recognized as so undo-able, that university students are devising alternative scenarios, trying to see what corners can be cut and how much infrastructure can be eliminated for a manned Mars mission. In fact, recent studies show that the most efficient and cost-effective pathway to Mars is via the Moon.

But the problems NASA faces are not just in the future. The Orion crew module, and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket upon which all of NASA's future plans depend, are years behind schedule, due to shortfalls in funding. At a hearing of the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Oct. 9, Representatives reported that Congress has rejected $440 million in cuts in the FY15 budget for the SLS and Orion programs that had been proposed by the White House. Former NASA witnesses at the hearing described the morale problems at the space agency. Can anyone really take NASA's "Journey to Mars" report seriously? NASA will be able to take its place as a leader among nations exploring space when President Obama leaves the White House.

No one from any space agency would disagree that mankind's future will be through the exploration of the Moon, the Solar System, and beyond. But how seriously creating this future is taken, requires the leadership that only a handful of nations are yet willing to exercise.

China's 2020 Space Station. See below

China's 2020 Space Station

As the partners on the International Space Station (ISS) start to plan the necessary steps to deorbit the laboratory early in the next decade, China, which has been excluded from the ISS, will be completing its own orbiting facility. The Chinese plan to have their space station operational in 2020, consisting of a core module, and two laboratories. Chinese space officials have made the offer to any nation that wishes to participate, to contribute science experiments, their own astronauts, and additional laboratories. The configuration of the station would allow three non-Chinese laboratory modules to be added.

The multi-fold purpose of the station is to carry out a broad range of scientific laboratory experiments, observe the Earth and the cosmos, and prepare for the deep-space travel of Chinese astronauts to the Moon.

Recently, more details on the Chinese station have been made available:

  • The core module, named Tianhe (Heavenly Harmony), will be launched first, and provide crew living quarters, and the primary control systems for the station. It also includes five docking ports, for visiting unmanned cargo and Shenzhou crewed space vehicles.

  • Experiment module I, Wentian (Exploring the Sky) will focus on Earth observation, housing a suite of remote sensing instruments.

  • Experiment module II, Xuntian (Cruising the Sky) will house a space telescope, which will do astronomical observations, as it will be facing away from the Earth.

  • Servicing the station, to deliver experiments, and consumables for the station itself, such as fuel, as well as for the crew, will be the Tianzhou (Heavenly Vessel) unmanned cargo ship.