Space race now between U.S., China

Friday, June 19, 2009 | 9:11 a.m. CDT; updated 4:03 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 19, 2009

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: Space exploration began with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik in October 1957, and the first man, Yuri Gagarin, flew in space in April 1961. When hydrogen leakage problems are fixed and the space shuttle Endeavor takes off, perhaps on July 11, it will carry the 500th person to fly in space. Manned lunar exploration started and stopped with the Apollo Program, and now has started again. But, the new competitor for the United States is China, not Russia. The Saturn rockets used to launch the space shuttles have been in use for 40 years. Why is this hydrogen leak such a problem, now?

Jim Banke, aerospace writer, owner of MILA Solutions, Cape Canaveral, Fla.: The hydrogen leak is in the launch pad itself — the service structure that attaches to the side of the space shuttle. NASA does not know why it is leaking. This has been a problem in several of the last countdowns. It could be because the launch pad is old, since the beginning of the shuttle program, or it might be the seals they’re using.

Loory: It sounds like things are easier once a spacecraft gets out of the earth’s atmosphere and into space. Is that correct?

Banke: There’s no doubt that being in orbit and being on the ground are safer places than the transition from the ground to orbit. There are many hazards to deal with in orbit, growing with the increasing amount of space debris. It is important that the eight and a half-minute flight from the ground to orbit is as safe as possible, and they don’t want to launch with a gaseous cloud of hydrogen floating around the rocket.

Loory: How do they designate the 500th person into space, when the shuttle has seven people on board?

Banke: It comes down to who is sitting where, and how the shuttle rolls over when it launches and enters orbit. While they all arrive in orbit at the same time, the guy in the front seat arrives before the back seat. So, after all of those variables and a few drinks, the crew has decided that Chris Cassidy is the big winner. The official line of “space” is 62 miles up. It’s taken 50 years to get 500; it can be debated whether the number should be higher, or if we’re lucky to have as many as we do.

Loory: Was it a mistake not following up on the Apollo Program 40-years ago, and continuing with manned exploration in space?

Tony Curtis, editor of Space Today Online, professor of mass communication, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, Pembroke, N.C.: At the initial period of the moon program, it was thought they would continue on to Mars. But, a political decision was made to put the money into reusable craft, taking more people up at a time, and doing scientific and other technical research in space just above earth.

Loory: It has always been an issue whether we get more out of unmanned exploration than manned. How do the Europeans feel about that?

Paul Marks, chief technology correspondent, New Scientist, London: The emphasis in Europe is unmanned, robotic exploration of the solar system. But, they have quite a commitment to the International Space Station, with astronauts on the station itself. There have been fewer Britains in space, total, than astronauts on the upcoming Endeavor mission. But, if everything goes as planned with Virgin Galactic, the numbers in space could double in the next 10 years. Space is becoming more accessible.

Loory: Tell us about Virgin Galactic and what it is hoping to do.

Marks: Virgin is hoping to leverage the expertise of Burt Rutan, and his Scaled Composites Company in Mojave, where they’ve built a spacecraft that is dropped from an aircraft and can reach sub-orbit, just above 62 miles. It gives five people at a time an experience of zero G’s (weightlessness), for about five minutes, and a great view of earth. It will cost about $200,000. They’re hoping to kick that off next year.

Loory: We’re not talking about space tourism that will take anybody to an international space station or a resort on the moon, are we?

Marks: Not yet, but they are talking about that in the future, with different versions of spacecraft being developed. Other space tourism companies are developing places for them to go. For instance, one company called Bigelow Aerospace has some designs for a habitat, which will inflate once in orbit and will have room for maybe five people. They don’t like the term, but people are calling it a space hotel.

Loory: President George W. Bush declared that men on Mars would be a goal. Is work going toward that goal?

Banke: Yes. The Aries 1 rocket test flight is scheduled from Cape Canaveral in a few months. (Thursday), there’s a lunar reconnaissance orbiter ready to launch on an Atlas 5. This probe will orbit around the moon, taking higher resolution pictures than we have ever seen, looking for places to land or eventually build a base. There’s a big push that by the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, in July of this year, they’ll have a picture of the lunar module descent stage on the Sea of Tranquility.

Curtis: We have a long planning stage, sending satellites and landers to Mars to investigate landing sites and what’s on the ground. They are particularly looking for water. They’ve found it under one of the polar ice packs, which may turn out to be one of the great discoveries of human beings. This spring, a professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics said that he anticipates that the Chinese will be able to send a man to the moon around 2020.  So, the U.S., in turn, is planning to do that also, and go to Mars by 2025.

Loory: Is the competition as intense between the U.S. and China as it was with the Soviet Union?

Banke: No, not yet. China has now launched three manned space flights. They’ve talked about going to Mars and sent unmanned probes to the moon. They’re putting out more engineers every year than we have in the last decade, and constructing facilities and testing rockets. Maybe, when Chinese people walk on the moon, it will wake up our country.

Curtis: The Chinese may think they’re in a race with somebody; there is an Asian space race involving Japan and India. Competition is everything. The Chinese are launching about 15 satellites this year, which is about the same as the U.S. In a few months, they will launch a probe to Mars.

Marks: China’s space science people are embarrassed by destruction of a satellite in orbit, a few years ago. It’s created 3,000 pieces of debris in low-earth orbit. It highlights that the debris population is growing inexorably. Even if we never have another launch into space, the debris population will be untenable by 2050. Space is going to become unusable, and all talk of what we want to do with it will become moot if we do not figure out how to recover this debris.

Banke: People think of space as this vast giant volume, and though it is, people mainly only use certain orbits. There needs to be international law on this issue so that nations aren’t putting up spacecraft causing a problem for everybody else.

Loory: The destruction of that satellite also had serious military implications.

Curtis: Right, the defense of a number of countries depends on their space satellites. Debris is tracked down to objects the size of a softball. But, something smaller than a softball, going 17,000 miles an hour or faster, can cause serious problems.

Loory: What has been the spin-off from space exploration for use here on earth?

Curtis: People like to joke about Tang, the 1960s powdered orange juice. But since Tang, there have been thousands of other developments, like miniaturization of electronics.

Banke: Many products come directly from space: Direct TV; satellite radio; GPS equipment; and our weather services.

Loory: No matter what the cost or difficultly, space exploration will be with us for a long time into the future, maybe forever. Mankind will not stop in exploring the unknown.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Geoff George and Brian Jarvis. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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