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China Poised For Manned Space Mission As Early As Next Week

By | September 15, 2008

      Chinese Space Advances Come As NASA Faces Serious Woes

      China is wrapping up preparations for liftoff as early as next week of its third manned space flight that will include its first taikonaut spacewalk, a portrait of progress that contrasts markedly with underfunding and an impending half-decade loss of space transport capabilities besetting the U.S. space program.

      NASA Administrator Michael Griffin recently wrote a heartfelt but (he thought) confidential email that outlined the grave state of the American space program, a view that rings true when compared to public statements of longtime space program experts. (Please see full story, Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Sept. 8, 2008.)

      This isn’t to say that NASA is without successes. For example, in a major advance, the Ares I rocket that will power the next-generation Orion crew capsule into space recently passed its preliminary design review (PDR) with only a few outstanding issues still open. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008.)

      Still, the problems that afflict NASA in both its space exploration and science programs come just as China is lavishing money and attention on its space endeavors, with the blastoff of the manned Shenzhou-7 spacecraft atop a Long-March II-F rocket set for a window opening next week, Sept. 25 through 30.

      Shenzhou-7 will blaze to space from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern Gansu Province, according to the official Xinhua news service.

      China, a nation enjoying a trade surplus totaling hundreds of billions of dollars a year, is flush with cash and a desire to prove its advancement. The Shenzhou-7 manned space mission with a crew of three taikonauts comes shortly after China attracted global attention with lavish summer Olympics games held there.

      Meanwhile, the United States is providing more than half the Chinese trade surplus, with the American trade deficit with China alone amounting to more than $200 billion yearly.

      Griffin, after visiting China to tour its facilities, said Beijing has assembled a modern, sound space program.

      At this point, NASA is hoping to have the Orion-Ares spaceship system developed and ready for its first manned space flight in 2015. However, that is a half decade after the Bush administration has commanded the current space shuttle fleet to retire. Continuing to operate the shuttles until 2015 would cost billions of dollars more than current budget plans for NASA permit.

      As an alternative to continuing to launch shuttle missions, NASA might use the problem-plagued Russian Soyuz spacecraft to haul U.S. astronauts into space. Soyuz ships have suffered abrupt reentry descents and hard landings, injuring crew members. NASA would pay Russia a hefty amount, yet to be negotiated, for the service.

      But NASA can’t even do that after 2011 without permission from Congress, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are seething over the Russian invasion and continued occupation of portions of the sovereign state of Georgia. Members of Congress also are angered by Russian opposition to the U.S. plan to erect a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland to guard Europe and the United States against missiles launched from Middle Eastern nations such as Iran.

      Some lawmakers as well are dismayed by the vision of China advancing its own space transport program with Shenzhou-7 and other missions while the United States, thus far the only nation to place men on the moon, is about to lose the ability to transport just one astronaut to space, even to low Earth orbit.

      At issue here, hanging in the balance, is whether the International Space Station will continue to operate well, if at all. The station, which was built with $100 billion of U.S. taxpayer funds, optimally requires U.S. astronauts aboard to function well, though perhaps Russian cosmonauts and ground controllers could keep it going without Americans present.

      In his email, Griffin said White House agencies are indifferent to whether NASA can maintain a presence on the orbiting outpost, or its fate. But Griffin ordered a study of how NASA should respond if the next president taking office in January decides to continue shuttle flights beyond 2010, as Griffin expects, and if so, how to minimize financial damage that this might cause to other programs in the space agency.

      The former Soviet Union was the first nation to achieve manned space flight. The United States was the second, and China the third. No other nations have launched humans into space with their own rockets and spaceships.

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