The new ‘Race to the moon’ does not include the U.S.

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By Dr Joan Vernikos, Space Correspondent, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) new White Paper on the next five years of its space strategy, released by the China National Space Administration on Dec. 27, 2016, raised new questions about the economic and natural-resource goals of space exploration, and about international space cooperation.

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie watch the flight of Astronaut Alan Shepard on television, May 5, 1961.
President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie watch the flight of Astronaut Alan Shepard on television, May 5, 1961.

Wu Yanhua, the deputy administrator of China National Space Administration, noted: “China would like to work with the international community to jointly promote the development of the global space industry, on the basis of equality and mutual benefit, the peaceful use [of outer space], [and] inclusive development.”

The “new space race”, however, may be more strategically significant even than during the Cold War, and issues of international cooperation may also be more significant. Clearly, international cooperation and learning from the experience of others has been key to the PRC’s rapid progress in the space arena, just as it was for the U.S. and the U.S.SR.

Histories of cooperation between the U.S. and Soviet Union open with overt and covert invitations by U.S. President John F. Kennedy to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev for a joint lunar mission, and President Kennedy’s famed 1961 “Moon Speech” announcing the United States’ “Race to the Moon”.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project handshake-in-space in 1975 was more of a photo-op togetherness demonstration to validate the Joint Collaboration in Space Agreement of 1971. Joint working groups, in areas across the board, led to collaboration on the then Soviet space Station Mir and eventually NASA’s ISS (International Space Station).

Less known is an earlier history of collaboration.

Both the USSR and NASA flew biosatellites with a variety of species aimed at understanding the effects of space flight on biology. The last such NASA Biosatellite flew during June and July 1969, just before the U.S. Apollo landing on the Moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Shortly thereafter, scientists at NASA Ames Research Center in California, where I worked, were contacted by scientists from the Institute of Biomedical Research in Moscow, offering a chance to participate in experiments flown in their Bion pro-gram on their Kosmos Biosatellite, the first of which had flown for five days in 1966.

Planning was now underway, we were told, for a longer mission which would include rats. Would we be interested? With no formal agreement in place, all they could offer was a chance to piggy-back on their existing planned experiments by sharing with us any animal parts left over after the Soviet and their Eastern bloc colleagues had acquired whatever they were interested in.

We proposed our needs in what came to be unofficially known as “the parts program”. We knew very little about the purpose of their research; how the animals, mostly rats, were handled, and who their scientists were. We knew nothing of their work nor their scientific competency. But we could meet the Soviet re-searchers and learn about their program. Best of all, it cost us nothing. It was an opportunity.

Soon, regular telephone meetings at 0600 (PST) /1900 (Moscow time) were started to discuss further steps. Four Ames Research Center scientists were involved. We asked for stomachs of their rats to identify stress-induced ulcers, eyes to identify radiation tracks and leg bones to determine how much bone they lost. The request for bones caused a problem because our scientist needed the rats injected with a dose of the antibiotic tetracycline, before launch and immediately after landing. This method could identify newly-formed bone, marking it with a yellow fluorescence ring.

Samples were sent to us after the satellite returned. We found no stomach ulcers; the eyes showed many tracks from radiation damage and the yellow tetracycline fluorescent rings told us that no new bone was formed during the entire flight of the rats in space. These bone findings changed our concepts of how bone loses its density and strength in space.

Eventually the United States and Soviet Union signed the Science and Applications Agreement in 1971 which provided U.S. investigators a platform for launching fundamental space biology and biomedical experiments together with their hardware into space. Joint working groups in areas across the board later led to collaboration on the Soviet Space Station, Mir, and eventually NASA’s ISS (International Space Station) together with numerous other international partners. We got to know our Soviet counterparts developing trust and respect.

Fast forward to the 21st Century: the People’s Republic of China has made rapid advances in the space domain not least because it could build on the technical and engineering advances in space made over the past 50 years by not only the U.S. and Russia, France, Japan, and India. This enabled the PRC to launch and advance rapidly its standing in the space arena as, for example, in launch systems with its Long March series of launchers.

Furthermore, its space program is military. This makes it nimble, responsive and efficient. In contrast to the U.S. competitive bidding system, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is the principal industrial contractor for the majority of the PRC’s space programs.

As with the initial collaborative steps with the Soviet Union, both covert and overt discussions are taking place. In 2016 alone, Presidents Xi Jinping of the PRC and Barack Obama of the U.S. met in September 2016 to discuss and lay foundations for further discussions on space safety and security, including orbital debris mitigation and satellite collision avoidance to ensure safe and sustainable outer space activities. These meetings and contacts create and sustain institutional and personal relationships that are crucial to information exchange and possible collaboration.

Recent activities, as well as those expected in the coming months reveal the breadth and dynamic rate of growth of the PRC space program. These include the launch of the Tiangong-2 space lab, the launch of a Shenzhou mission to dock with Tiangong-2 and perform a 30-day science mission and the launch of the country’s new, heavy-lift launcher, Long March-5.

The PRC’s new spaceport on Hainan island recently conducted its first launch of a Long March-7. In Beijing, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) revealed the design of its Mars lander/rover spacecraft, ready for a launch to Mars in 2020.

The PRC has been candid about its plans for Lunar landings, both human and scientific as well as resource base-building in the race for Earth’s next source of energy, Helium-33. There is a lot going on with the PRC’s space program, and the conversation with the U.S. is too slow.

Russia is not too far behind in its plans to send humans to the Moon, this time to exploit its current space technological leadership. It is already consolidating its resources, pulling out of its commitments to the ISS. It could easily beat the PRC in its bid for Lunar resources.

The “Lunar Resource Race” is currently more significant than the space race ever was or the race to go to Mars can be. Just because the U.S. landed humans on the Moon 38 years ago, does not mean it would be able to go back there tomorrow. The U.S. may win the race if it can rediscover the hunger to win that the Apollo project had engendered in the Kennedy years.