China in Space: A Threat or Not?

Mission Control celebrates another successful mission. It ain't JSC.

Mission Control celebrates another successful mission. And it ain’t JSC.

Readers would be hard pressed to find a more blasé attitude towards China’s space program than the current “nothing-to-be-alarmed-about-here-folks” op-ed column by John Kelly recently published in Florida Today.  In his piece, Kelly dismisses any possible concern that China’s development of new space faring capability has any relevance to American interests.  In what he calls “politically driven hysteria,” he outlines the supposed myriad ways in which China lags behind the USA and the rest of the world, touting their space station as “one-tenth the size” of the US Skylab station of the 1970s.  Since when does size trump utility in space assets?

Kelly accuses those whom he characterizes as “preying on the average voter’s lack of geopolitical knowledge” of “jawboning,” while jawboning.  He’s convinced (and feels the need to convince his readers) that the Chinese space program is simply a national pride-driven, PR exercise, a pathetic re-hash of the “space race” era (and America must resist the temptation to join in such a “race”).  Perhaps.  But who recently conducted anti-satellite warfare tests in low Earth orbit, leaving behind a cloud of space debris that will take years to decay and dissipate?  Hint: it wasn’t the USA or any of its space partners.

It appears Kelly wants us to reach out and cooperate with the Chinese in space, even though they have not shown any particular desire for such a path.  Kelly, the geopolitical sophisticate, seems to think that we should woo China with promises of space cooperation, like we won the hearts of the Russians.  Yes, the Soviets were our one-time rivals, but I seem to recall that aside from one public relations “détente” mission in the 1970s (Apollo-Soyuz), real cooperation with Russia in space began after the fall of communism there in the early 1990s.  At that time we were no longer in global competition with Russia and the rapid easing of tensions and encouragement of good relations was pressing.  Such is not true now for China; in fact, geopolitical competition and tension between China and the U.S. is increasing, especially in the South Pacific region.  China may turn out to be an ally in the long run but such an outcome at this time is by no means obvious.

China’s approach to space is focused on systematically pursuing a step-by-step program to gradually and continuously extend their reach and capabilities in space.  It won’t take “multiple decades” for the Chinese to overtake our stalled U.S. space program and gain a strong (if not an upper) hand in space development.  Leading from behind never works as it comes from diminished authority, thus lacking weight or persuasion.  I have noted before that many of the allegedly “sophisticated observers” in the space commentariat seem intent on pooh-poohing Chinese space ambitions.  In the absence of a large amount of hard data on China’s program (it is run by the military and very secretive) speculation abounds, but ignoring potential peril or purposefully denying its existence (and ascribing questionable motives to those who are concerned by our complacency) is the height of irresponsibility.  The clear facts are these:  China is a nascent space power, but they appear to be determined and resourceful.  They are approaching the development of a space faring capability logically and incrementally.  China’s technical and architectural choices appear sound.

What might be China’s ultimate ambitions in space?  They have clearly zeroed in on the development of space power, which despite sounding “sinister,” is merely the projection of power in space to serve national interests.  This power can take many forms, but in effect, it’s the ability to protect one’s own assets and capabilities and to deny an adversary theirs.  Satellites are astonishingly delicate and vulnerable.  They can be disabled easily with small, cheap spacecraft designed to intercept and impact them or blind their sensors with laser beams.  In a matter of a few minutes, a small interceptor can turn a billion-dollar surveillance satellite into a useless piece of space junk.  It is laughable and dangerous to presume that emerging space powers don’t think in these terms.  Kelly attributes others’ concerns as a ploy to get money for NASA and/or the military.  He claims to find their program “interesting to watch,” attributing their success to a “stable budget” and their use of the hard-earned expertise of previous space faring nations.

Many people think of war in space as science fiction, but during some future global crisis there is no reason to imagine that space would not be one of the theaters of operations in addition to land, sea and air.  We depend on critical space assets for many different tasks, including surveillance, communications, GPS for troop and fleet movements and UAV guidance, weather prediction – most all facets of modern life – a dependency that most take for granted.  If all our space-based functions were threatened, blocked by an unfriendly power, we have few effective options to respond to this vulnerability.

In addition to the operational aspects of the Chinese space effort, there is a technological dimension as well.  China is using its space program to incentivize and bootstrap a robust technical industrial base.  The manufacturing and human intellectual capital needed to conduct spaceflight has critical national security implications.  Nations that have both a strong economy and a high-technology base hold a distinct edge in preserving peace or defending themselves if war ever comes.  However, since the end of the Cold War, we have systematically dismantled the high-technology aerospace industrial base that helped us to win that struggle.  Unlike us, the Chinese see a vigorous space program as a means to develop new technical capabilities that will have much wider applications than space.  They understand that this is a good thing; we used to.

China has already sent two missions to orbit the Moon.  They plan to send a third mission this year to soft-land on the lunar surface.  Clearly, the Moon is part of their long-range strategic vision.  Experts assure us the Chinese are only interested in the Moon to land a man there (eventually – not in the near future, so don’t worry and get into a pointless “race”), plant the Chinese flag, say “me too” and then come back home basking in glory.  It apparently never occurs to these geniuses that others might see long-range value to the Moon – perhaps to use its resources and location to create a permanent cislunar presence, where all the world’s space assets reside.

Tut-tut – what a silly idea!  Don’t you realize that everybody looks at the space program the same way – as a bread and circuses amusement for their citizens, designed to bring “excitement” (those precious web hits) with an ever bigger and ever more spectacular series of space “firsts?”  Aren’t we told that there’s no practical value to going to the Moon?  There’s no “gold” there!  Certainly we would have gone back if there had been – or at least, we would be following the same path as China.

Now, let’s get back to those more important discussion topics of New Space – things like one-way trips to Mars, crowd-source funding and suborbital junkets.

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28 Responses to China in Space: A Threat or Not?

  1. billgamesh says:

    I have to agree with Kelly’s basic premise- the Chinese are not a threat. I remember just before 911 there were people making the rounds in the military intelligence community giving presentations trying to demonize them and start a new cold war. They were pretty rabid about it.

    But I disagree with everything else he says; they are not far behind us. I expect them to do an Apollo 8 mission very soon. I doubt they will build any more space stations- they are headed for the Moon.

    And they will likely get there and eventually have a self-sustaining colony. They are pursuing the same kind of Spudis- Lavoie plan we should be. They are missing a few key technologies right now like Hydrogen burning engines but their hypergolic technology is impressive and though not a substitute may effect a work around. Much as we contemplated going to the Moon using Gemini.

    As the regulars who comment on Dr. Spudis’ site here are probably aware, I am a planetary protection- survival colony guy and that is my first cause for being interested in space. I want the human race to survive.
    If the survivors from some not too distant future apocalypse all happen to be Chinese then that will be the way the ball bounced.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      I have to agree with Kelly’s basic premise- the Chinese are not a threat.

      China (and many others) is a potential threat and “demonization” has nothing to do with it — it’s merely a recognition of history and reality.

  2. DougSpace says:

    Bigelow raised the issue as to whether China might give a years’ notice, pull out of the Moon treaty, land a human at a lunar pole, and then claim the property for themselves. I calculated what it would take, driving at Apollo 17 rover speeds, to encircle the > 70% sunlit regions of the north lunar pole. It would take about 18 hours.

    Still, I think that China is smart enough to know that it has a lot to lose if it flexes its new muscles. America is once again a sleeping giant. If China were to take a dramatic action, not only would they jeopardize their main source of income, America, but they would find the US and other countries resolutely acting contrary to their interests.

    Still, I believe that lunar development is easy enough and establishing a permanent lunar base and start harvesting lunar polar ice is so obviously the way to do America one better, that I think that it is hard to imagine that they wouldn’t choose to do so even if at a leisurly pace. I want the first woman on the Moon (admired by 800 million school girls world-wide) to be from a free country such as the United States. Same with the other “firsts” such as the first permanent human base off-Earth.

    As for accessing the world’s assets in space, I think that China would be stupid to harm the space assets of any other country. That would be recognized as an act of war and China’s much more valuable Earth-based assets would be endangered.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      China would be stupid to harm the space assets of any other country. That would be recognized as an act of war and China’s much more valuable Earth-based assets would be endangered.

      They would not do any such thing without having considered that. Sometimes, nations do things that are clearly questionable or foolhardy from our perspective, but that make perfect sense from theirs. Japan didn’t expect Pearl Harbor to go unanswered — but they thought they could knock out our ability to respond to it effectively in one blow. As for China “claiming” territory, that’s irrelevant — in the event of war, all questions of ownership are up for grabs.

      • billgamesh says:

        “-in the event of war, all questions of ownership are up for grabs.”

        Very true; according to my favorite polymath, Jacob Bronowski, war is simply armed robbery on a larger scale. He considered the horse to be the original cause of organized warfare- it allowed the loot to be hauled from the scene of the crime.

        With nuclear weapons effectively burning down the whole town if you try and steal from your neighbors house, and a world economy leaving no place to go besides the scene of the crime…….

        Not saying that a maniac might not light a match in the powder factory.

  3. Remember the good ole days when the term “Made in Japan” meant cheap products of low quality? Modern history, of course, has shown us that things can change rapidly.

    America has been paralyzed over the past 40 years by an ideological civil war between those on the right who advocate a paralyzed Federal government (except for military spending) within an environment of pure laissez faire capitalism and those on the left who see no problem in spending tax payer money and borrowing foreign funds to finance one of the most inefficient welfare states on Earth. Both extremes have been devastating to our economy.

    China, on the other hand, has no inhibitions about using both government investment and private industry to rapidly advance its technology and its domestic infrastructure while rapidly growing its economy.

    The ruling oligarchy in China (the Communist Party) sees America as a country in decline as China ascends towards global economic dominance. And so does much of the rest of the world.

    Still China has always been rather cautious about awakening the “Sleeping Giant”. This is a term for the United States that is credited to the Japanese World War II admiral, Yamamoto, but is actually a Hollywood movie creation credited to Yamamoto in the Pearl Harbor film, Tora, Tora, Tora.

    But China is, logically, still going to try to avoid doing anything that might reawaken America’s competitive spirit!

    But it seems rather ironic that even the government hating US corporations have flocked to Big Government China, taking millions of American jobs with them for China’s cheap educated labor. Many of these companies have even sold advance military technology to China as was reported by Congress last year. But, of course, the corporations have no loyalty to America or to the American people, only to the almighty dollar.

    The Chinese Communist Party is probably rather shocked at how truly prophetic Lenin was when he said, “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them!”

    China is still well behind the US in space technology. But they are rapidly moving foreword while trying not to reawaken a US space program that’s been in decline since the end of the Apollo era.

    China is logically focusing on the Moon and its resources. Its in their White Paper! And Ouyang Ziyuan (Ouyang), a senior consultant at China’s lunar exploration program has said:

    “The world is witnessing the climax of the second round of lunar exploration. All the countries involved are expecting to discover more comprehensive and concrete knowledge about the moon.If China doesn’t explore the moon, we will have no say in international lunar exploration and can’t safeguard our proper rights and interests.”

    Sorry Mr. Kelly but China is no paper tiger! China’s ruling oligarchy is out to economically dominate both the heavens and the Earth!

    America’s pioneers have always been followed by privateers that have expanded America’s economic realm into new territories. And the same will be true in the 21st century if we finally allow NASA to pioneer the Moon and beyond so that the privateers can follow!

    Marcel F. Williams

  4. The Chinese space program is slow but steady. Some people focus on the “slow,” noting that they are launching at a rate of five human-crews launched in ten years. Some people focus on the “steady,” noting the incremental improvement in capability with each launch. The truth is both.

    • billgamesh says:

      That does not mean it will stay that way. Once they reach a certain capability like a heavy lift vehicle that can soft-land worthwhile payloads on the Moon, then they might ramp up their efforts and launch 6 or 8 a year to build a base. And unlike the U.S. they would “steadily” build a self-sustaining colony over the course of a few decades. As a planetary protection and survival colony advocate I have to applaud their efforts. Not that it makes me happy that we are not doing it. Ticks me off.

      • reader says:

        They are already planning to land a worthwhile payload on the moon this year. Something that has not been done for 37 years ! ( I’m 35 )

        I hope they avoid bankrupting their program and chasing after the folly of heavy lift, and instead go for sustainable approach of incrementally building in space infrastructure, with rendezvous and in-space refueling capabilities.

  5. Joe says:

    I think Mr. Kelly may be confusing his comparisons. The Chinese certainly have a way to go to match our former capabilities. Unfortunately we now have a way to go to match their current capabilities.

    As to how the Chinese might plan to overtake and surpass our former capabilities, here is an article by Craig Covault (from 2012):

    • China just built the fastest super computer on Earth, twice as fast as anything we have in the US. They have high speed rail; we don’t. China currently has 29 nuclear reactors under construction; the US currently has one nuclear reactor under construction after not building any new reactors for 30 years. China can currently send humans into orbit; but it could be as long as four years from now before the US will be able to send humans back into space again.

      China already produces more graduates a year from universities and community colleges than the US does and this will only increase over the next few decades. China is clearly showing the world that you don’t need– political freedom and human rights– in order to scientifically and economically dominate the world.

      Marcel F. Williams

    • billgamesh says:

      Hi Joe,
      The article says they may have the same lift capability of the SLS and operational at the same time as the SLS. Does not sound like they “have a way to go” to me.

      Maybe they could build the lander we need and launch it on their vehicle and our payload of rovers could dock with it in Lunar orbit for starters. How many rovers? Make them Mars size and gosh, it would be dozens at least. A couple dozen rovers to play with- that would keep Dr. Spudis busy.

      Later on we could dock our Orion capsule with it and have a manned lander to set down at the pole near the ice- next to a big field of one-way landers waiting to be unloaded.
      Just fantasizing.

    • Robert Clark says:

      Thanks for that link to the AmericaSpace article on the Chinese space program. I was especially interested in the fact that a Long March 5 could launch a Shenzhou capsule on a circumlunar orbit.

      Bob Clark

      • Joe says:

        Yes, the Long March 5 is to have a greater payload capacity than the Russian Proton rocket. In the 1960’s the Russians planned such a flight with a spacecraft called Zond (really a stripped down version of a Soyuz), so there is no reason the Chinese could not fly such a mission.

        • billgamesh says:

          They could do it right now if they sent up a fully loaded booster and docked it with one of their spacecraft- just like Gemini and Agena. I will not be surprised if it happens this year.
          I am sure the media will go nuts over it.

          By the way Joe, what do you think of the mass penalty for docking an Orion capsule (without the service module) with a lander, thus turning it into a manned lander like we originally planned for Apollo. I read this was why the engine on the Apollo service module was so big- it was the same engine that was going to lift everything off the Moon without orbital rendezvous.

          Carrying the parachutes and heat shield and extra structural mass down to the surface and back up sounds like a bad deal but the alternative is waiting for a completely dedicated lander. I am half-serious about the Chinese building a big hypergolic cargo lander for us.

          We need to get those rovers scurrying around and start landing cargo for a future base.

          • Joe says:

            “By the way Joe, what do you think of the mass penalty for docking an Orion capsule (without the service module) with a lander, thus turning it into a manned lander like we originally planned for Apollo. I read this was why the engine on the Apollo service module was so big- it was the same engine that was going to lift everything off the Moon without orbital rendezvous.”

            That is an interesting question.

            Just truth in packaging, that whole discussion is before my time (I did not arrive in the business until January 1982). I do have an interest in the history of this sort of thing, however, so here is what I think I know. The version of the Apollo system that would have landed the Apollo Command Module directly on the lunar surface would have required a much larger vehicle, requiring a booster larger than the Saturn 5. The fact that the bigger booster could not be provided by the 1970 deadline was the reason that lead to the adoption of the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach.

            I do not think even the hypothetical Chinese 130 Ton Launcher could achieve that goal. Therefore they would have to be planning on an Apollo Single Launch Lunar Orbit Rendezvous or a dual launch Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach. If the former that would give an approximately Apollo like capability, if the latter (combined with one way cargo launches) it could considerably exceed the Apollo capabilities.

            It will be interesting to see what happens.

          • Robert Clark says:

            BTW, I’m fairly sure looking at the capabilities of the Delta IV Heavy with the upgraded RS-68a engine, about 28 metric tons to LEO, that it could launch the Orion on that 2014 test launch on a circumlunar flight.
            The test is to only carry a dummy service module, so that will be much lighter. The flight is planned though to carry the launch abort system (LAS) so that detracts from the weight that can be launched.
            Without the LAS the DIVH could definitely send the Orion on a circumlunar flight. With the LAS, it makes it a little more difficult to estimate since it is jettisoned before reaching orbit.
            This makes the use of the SLS for that unmanned circumlunar test flight in 2017 even more dubious, since the DIVH could do that, even if removing the LAS is required. That is another reason why I say NASA should be aiming for an actual unmanned lunar landing test with that 2017 SLS flight.
            ULA has done studies on adapting the Centaur upper stage as a lunar lander stage so you would not need a huge, and hugely expensive, Altair lander. We already even have a crew module that could be used for such a lander in NASA’s SEV, which can be ready by 2017 for test flights.

            Bob Clark

  6. I have the suspicion that China might try to pull off an Apollo 8-type of mission before the decade is out. Will that coincide with the first SLS/Orion unmanned lunar fly-by in 2017? If their Long March 5 rocket is operational by 2015, they might try it even before the SLS lifts off. It will be really fun to watch the US reaction to this, considering that it will be election time for the US by then.

    Aside from their launchers development, they also have an ongoing robotic lunar exploration program that has enjoyed immense success thus far. They plan to do their first robotic soft landing on the Moon, this year-the first since the last one being made by the Soviets in the ’70s, and a lunar sample return within the 2015-2017 period. If they pull all of this off, they will have demonstrated far more spaceflight capability than the US currently has (The US was to do a Mars sample return with ESA by mid-decade-oh, I forgot, the US cut the funding…).

    The US is in a state of denial about China’s advancement in space. It approaches it with a blase attitude of ‘been there, done that’. As a space advocate, that really sadens me and ticks me off. But on the same time, more power to the Chinese. I so much want for NASA to return to the Moon, but if it’s China the one that does it, I’ll applaud it nonetheless.

  7. mike shupp says:

    The great mystery here, one the Chinese themselves probably appreciate more than us, is how fast the Chinese economy will continue to grow and for how long. In terms of sheer size, the Chinese now have the world’s second largest economy. If this continues to grow indefinitely at a rate of 7 to 10 % per year, then the Chinese will overtake the US — which has a GNP growing at 2% per year — in another decade or so. Current estimates are that China spends the equivalent of 2-3 billion dollars per year on its space program. It’s a reasonable projection that a mid 2020’s China with a GNP of say 20 Trillion dollars could afford a space program comparable in cost to a USA with a 20 Trillion dollar GNP. And if those growth rates continue for another decade, by the 2030’s, the Chinese would have an economy twice as large as ours, and would be able to support twice as much spending on space.

    I have a picture in my mind of the US in say 2030 proclaiming with much ballyhoo that the world should send an expedition to Mars, with much division of labor and cost sharing among nations — under US leadership, of course. And the Chinese might quietly demur and mention that they are going to build a settlement on the Moon, and that all nations who would wish to participate in building an international colony are welcome. In effect, nations around the world would be choosing whether they prefer an American or a Chinese-led future for humanity — and I can conceive of circumstances where the US doesn’t win that vote.

    Against this, of course, the Chinese economy might falter. Some economists argue that growth tapers off as nations approach the 15,000 dollar GNP per capita figure — 18 Trillion dollars, in the Chinese case. Other observers warn that corruption and ill-advised government spending are inefficiencies that already reduce Chinese growth, that energy shortages and rising raw material costs will make things worse, and that rising citizen unrest aimed at one-party rule and inequitable distributions of land and wealth will redirect government policy towards redistribution and other palliative measures which appease the populace but reduce fyure economic growth. And cynics might argue the Chinese have been like gamblers with a lucky hand at a roulette wheel — sooner or later the law of averages will end their winning run and the Chinese will have to settle for a “normal” economy and give up their high flown ambitions.

    In short. the future is unforeseeable and the sort of resources the Chinese can make available for future space programs cannot be predicted. I sort of side with the cynics — the law of averages does catch up with long run winners, as our own current woes show. On the other hand, I wouldn’t suggest that America-first optimists start slapping themselves on the back and proclaim that US superiority in space is forever assured. True, we have the help of God, free enterprise, and demonstrators outside abortion clinics to demonstrate our moral ascendency over those pagan furriners, but maintaining economic superiority while our growth rates continue at their current pace isn’t possible unless the vast majority of Chinese people are forever doomed to a third world struggle for subsistence.

    So yeah, it’d be nice if the US got to Mars first and the Chinese space program wasn’t much of a competitor, but it’d be a shame if our success were made possible only by condemning millions upon millions of people to misery and misfortune. Space buffs need a sense of proportion.

    • billgamesh says:

      “-it’d be a shame if our success were made possible only by condemning millions upon millions of people to misery and misfortune. Space buffs need a sense of proportion.”

      I am not condemning anybody to misery and misfortune- and I have a sense of proportion.
      Your modernized version of the white man’s burden does not read very well Mike.

      “-that energy shortages and rising raw material costs will make things worse,-”

      China is building the largest solar energy plant in the world in one of their deserts. They have access to all the raw materials of the planet in exchange for their cheap labor and lack of environmental regulation. They have VAST human resources- and that is the salient difference between them and us. We have a large workforce but in terms of the youth and education of that workforce the Chinese have us beat not only in numbers.
      Ask these countless hundreds of millions of people what their lives would be like without their low paying jobs. Most of China is rural- just like America was before our industrial boom. China has not even hit their stride yet. Their potential is mind boggling. Mega projects like Criswell’s Lunar Solar Power do not scare them at all. It may well be the Chinese century. China will continue to grow and will meet the challenges of cleaning up their environment while increasing energy production. Why? Because they choose to.
      We are not making the same choice.

      • mike shupp says:

        Billgamesh —

        Not dumping on you, man. You’re right — the Chinese have great potential. Paraphrasing Brad deLong, the most important political fact of the 20th Century may have been that because of a common language and a history of trade, Americans viewed the British as friends and allies; the most important political fact of the 21st Century may be that that because of trade (and emigration?) the Chinese come to view Americans as friends who made possible their own rise in the world.

        [gratuitous political comments deleted]

        We shouldn’t be letting people in those groups define our space program, I’m trying to say. Space buffs should view the future with both urgency and a long perspective.

        In a roundabout way, I’m endorsing Dr. Spudis’ judgements.

  8. billgamesh says:

    I recently visited South Korea for a couple months. They are a new member of the space club and recieved zero help from us getting their launcher operational. They had to pay the Russians. People sometimes make the mistake of putting Asian nations in a certain category when they are very different. China, South Korea, and Japan all have very good industrial bases capable of building spacecraft and launchers; this is not in doubt. America, Russian, and France all have viable space programs- and then there is India and wannabe Brazil.

    What is interesting to me is the ship and large engine building industry in Korea and Japan- both countries are completely capable of producing large solid rocket boosters and rocket engines. We will not give them the technology though and since the west dominates the launch industry they will not risk the investment.

    A tremendous amount of wasted effort and resources. Just as different companies built the Saturn V, it is possible- not easy- but possible, to have an international space program whose sum is greater than it’s parts. I do not think the ISS is a good example of this because…..I do not like the ISS. That is my own personal bias. But as for a far larger cooperative effort; what would be the purpose, the goal of that program?

    Besides planetary protection and survival colonies- which is also my own preference but not popular, there is telecommunications. A cislunar telecom initiative is attractive but for many reasons does not seem to be a big enough attractor to inspire such a global effort. What then?

    I keep coming back to Criswell’s Lunar Solar Power. It bugs me. We are definiteley headed for big problems on this planet due to our population growing. We need energy. And the ability to beam that energy down from space could also lead to the holy grail of space travel- cheap lift by way of beam propulsion. And that could lead to that fantastic dream of the 70’s being resurrected; the space habitats of Gerard K. O’Neill.

    Call me crazy but sometimes I think it could happen. Sometimes not; like when I read that NASA wa promoting their asteroid mission in the guise of planetary protection. Then I get discouraged.

  9. billgamesh says:

    And as an aside, if Dr. Spudis will permit, I wish to state I am not trying to demean anyone here with my comments. I have the utmost respect for the people involved with building the ISS and with other space projects. If I disagree with a comment I try not to make it sound personal. I have had some rugged exchanges on other forums and this may have conditioned me to respond….”bluntly”, as Mike might put it. I think we are all excited about the same thing and are spending time here to learn and revel in the possibilities the future holds- and to vent (within reason) at the lack of vision that is an obstacle to realizing those possibilities. I thank you all for your time.

  10. mike shupp says:

    Large scale space solar power systems have got a couple of strikes against them right now.

    Point 1: just as nuclear power plants have a big public relations problem (“Ugh! Nasty neutrons! Core meltdowns and China syndromes and radiation and atom bombs!”), the same would be true for large solar collection systems (“Microwaves and roasted birds and insects falling out of the sky! And people being burned to death!”) There’s a big Not In My Back Yard problem, in other words.

    Point 2: a lot of people see fracking and oil extraction from shale and methane extraction from sea floor formations as a near term panacea, Relatively easy mining projects yielding energy from sources that can be utilized in fairly conventional power plants and refineries, without asking people to accept major changes in their lifestyle. These ideas may pan out, or maybe not, but it’ll probably be another decade before we can see if the promise holds up. But until then, SSPS is going to strike most people as an expensive, pie-in-the-sky sort of idea.

    Point 3: the ultra large systems Gerald O’Neill proposed assumed lunar mining of materials and manufacture, with subsequent in-space assembly of solar arrays by human workers. Without a middling large lunar base and without some sort of habitant to house the workers, and without some political framework that allows this sort of thing (meaning, getting past the Moon Treaty), the construction of of large space structures looks prohibitively expensive.

    Point 4: ignoring the above points, the prospect of combining a lunar base and a space habitat and building solar arrays and large ground solar collection facilities and constructing major pieces of a new energy distribution on earth, virtually from scratch, looks formidable. That looks like a muilti-trillion dollar jigsaw puzzle, Maybe governments have the money and patience and skills to finance and organize such a thing, but it’s beyond the scope of any single company or any ordinary consortium of construction firms. Maybe, just maybe, anti-trust laws could be relaxed to permit some behemoth Space, Inc. to be formed to tackle the job — but I think it’d take something like a planet-threatening emergency to provide justification. Right now we’ve got a lot of relatively independent producers of oil and gas and power generation companies, with a loosely coupled energy transmission network; maybe that looks inefficient from a God-like perspective, but from a low level vantage, it works, and it’s relatively immune to single-point failures, so it’s reliable, and we don’t want to change it much without good reason.

    All that said…. I can see a couple of places where small to medium solar power systems would work beautifully to supplement or replace temporary power generation needs. Military operations, for example, and disaster relief efforts. Lay out your solar collection panels where convenient, redeploy them as circumstances change, in whatever numbers your need, and then point your satellite systems in the right direction…. simple. easy power production that can’t be tampered with. Not super cheap, perhaps, but trucks with mobile power generators aren’t cheap either and they make much more attractive targets for enemy guns than fields filled with solar cells. Also, in wars and forest fires and massive floods, local objections to your power generation methods can usually be ignored. And governments can tolerate the cost.

    So, if the competition is electricity from Southern California Edison at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. solar power may not look that great. But if the competition is a diesel engine on a flatbed trailer in a bunker in Iraq while bullets are flying through the air burning up fifty gallon drums of oil air-lifted in from Wiesbaden by poorly maintained Hercules transport aircraft at maybe a buck twenty per kilowatt-hr overall…. solar power could shine. NASA really ought to push for a fast paced demonstration program!

    And if that works, the sky’s (no longer) the limit.

    • billgamesh says:

      I specifically stated “Criswells’ Lunar Solar Power” concept which is all about providing 3 times the energy the world produces right now.

      The “trillion dollar jigsaw puzzle” is the only way to provide a western standard of living to 10 billion people. No other scheme I know of even comes close.

      • mike shupp says:

        Mea culpa. There’s always more to learn, and I thank you!

        The irony is that I’d just skimmed through Criswell’s contribution in Finney and Jones’ INTERSTELLAR MIGRATION, so I was familiar with his name, but hadn’t realized he’d more to say. So I’ve more reading to do and to think about.

  11. mike shupp says:

    Carrying on here … O’Neill colonies. What a dream! I can recall when the idea was new and fresh and the paintings of the interiors were so grand and L4 and L5 seemed as just as real and approachable — and magical — as Paris and Peking and Jerusalem…. Oh, for what might have been!

    And yet, just what was the point of those Elysiums? If we’ve ruled out constructing power stations — and I think we have, for the time being — what purpose did they serve? More precisely, what is so special about life at a Lagrange Point? It’s dynamically stable, I understand. You can stand on your balcony and watch the earth sweep across the horizons at 2 or 3 minute intervals. The phone calls to your broker and your ex-wife in Buenos Aires and your aging parents in Luna City are all essentially local, with minimal time lag. The zero-gee sex in the hotel rooms strung along the axis with your current wife or sight-seeing Pan American stewardesses is fantastic. You can fly — really fly! with your own arms flapping wings like a bird…. All that. But you can do all that — except for the convenient phone calling — anywhere in the solar system. (Well, maybe not the part with the stewardesses, but that was Pan Am’s failing, not yours!)

    Which makes me wonder if we could sort of re-purpose L5 colonies, not as an ethereal Shangri La fixed in the heavens twixt Moon and Earth, but as Buzz Aldrin-style cylers, the cruise ships and tramp steamers of a future age, sweeping along narrow cometary orbits precisely adjusted to permit not stopovers, but close fly-bys of Earth and Mars and one or two asteroids, ferrying tourists or colonists or outer bound adventurers to the far reaches of the inhabited solar system.

    How did Tennyson put it?

    “For I dipped into the future, far as human eye might see,
    Saw the vision of the world and all the wonder that might be;
    Saw the heavens filled with commerce, argosies of magic sails
    And pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales….”

    A nice picture, also worthy of dreams, if we just keep the “ghastly dews” at bay.

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