- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

Can China, with only a fraction of the gross national product of the United States, actually beat America in manned space exploration over the next decade and more? The answer is yes, easily and for many reasons.

China’s space program shows every sign of using reliable, mature and inexpensive technology rather than bankrupting itself on showy but dangerous and vastly overambitious technology, such as the U.S. manned space program has relied upon for more than two decades with the space-shuttle program.

The space shuttle was supposed to make space travel routine, cheap and safe. Despite great achievements, it fell short of its goals. Space shuttle flights that were originally supposed to average a dozen or more a year fell from six to four, even before the disintegration of the Columbia during re-entry on Feb. 1.

Far from being cheap, they always cost a billion dollars a flight. Far from being safe, they have so far killed 14 astronauts in two disasters — Columbia this year and Challenger in 1986. That is more than twice the total number of recorded dead cosmonauts from the Soviet and later Russian space program since its inception 42 years ago.

Also, the space-shuttle program cost so much money that it leached resources away from developing any realistic alternatives. Today, the United States has fewer capabilities for manned space exploration than it did 31 years ago at the time of the last manned moon mission, Apollo 17.

By contrast, China’s space program is based on the older, safer, more-reliable and cheaper technology the United States developed in the 1960s and that the Soviet space program continued to use for its very limited, but scientifically important, long-duration space-station missions of the 1980s and 1990s.

China’s Shenzhou-class capsules have been developed slowly, thoroughly and conservatively, like Boeing developed airliner technology over the past half-century.

As UPI science correspondent Frank Seitzen wrote on July 8, “Shenzhou began development in 1992 and so far has been launched successfully four times, the first of which was in November 1999. Each year, China has flown a new, more capable, unpiloted variant of the ship. Its design closely follows the Russian Soyuz.”

Also, as Mr. Seitzen noted, the Shenzhou spacecraft — like the evolution of the Apollo moon ships from the previous tried-and-tested Mercury and Gemini capsules — reflects organic, orderly evolution from the earlier designs it was based upon. “Slightly larger than its Russian counterpart, Shenzhou is constructed of more-advanced materials and lighter component materials than the 30-year-old Soyuz.” It also “has larger and more-extensive solar panels than Soyuz.”

And in the crucial area of astronaut — or as they say, “taikonaut” — safety, Shenzhou is actually far more advanced than the U.S. shuttle program was in protecting the lives of its crew. As Mr. Seitzen reported, the Long March 2F booster rocket “flies with an abort system that can blast the manned capsule free of the booster in the event of a launching mishap.”

That kind of option could have saved the lives of the seven Challenger astronauts had it been part of the shuttle program in the 1980s.

The Chinese have also learned from their Russian mentors in giving priority to producing a reliable and cost-effective “big dumb booster.” Their Long March 2E cargo booster, which has been altered to carry the manned Shenzhou spacecraft as the 2F class, is conceptually very similar to the Russian Proton booster.

It is not a spectacular super-rocket that can blast its payload all the way to the Moon as a colossal Saturn V did 34 years ago. But then, even the United States can no longer build Saturn Vs. Too many of the vital plans have been lost through simple bureaucratic incompetence.

What the Long March 2 provides, like the Proton, is a solid workhorse than can be economically produced in sufficient quantities to put crews in space on a regular basis and acquire the crucial program experience and capability that the United States did with its 1965-66 Gemini program.

A cautious but highly competent and ever-developing “tortoise beats hare” design and testing philosophy has guided China’s space program over the past decade. This indicates that continued incremental but significant design evolution will lead to improved performance and payload capabilities in years to come.

Still, conventional wisdom maintains China will find it a long road from putting a single taikonaut in orbit to fulfilling its dreams of trumping the United States and Russia with impressive orbiting space stations and an eventual moon base.

But conventional wisdom may very well be wrong.

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