China Rising In Space

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For the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8 last month, the PBS NOVA series did a nice documentary on the flight that’s worth finding and watching. Among many, the producers interviewed one of the most cerebral of the astronauts, Michael Collins. He was the command module pilot on Apollo 11 and also a Capcom on Apollo 8.

Ever the poet-philosopher, Collins observed that when he gave Apollo 8 the go for TLI—trans-lunar injection—he did so fully grasping NASA’s refined predilection for making the magnificent into the mundane. That rather pedestrian sounding clearance marked the first time man had left the confines of Earth for another body in the solar system. It was a big deal. Collins said in retrospect, he would have said “Apollo 8, you can slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the sky … you go!” 

For those of us who followed the space program at the time, it was a heady moment and every bit as momentous as the actual lunar landing and of the Wrights’ flight at Kitty Hawk just 65 years earlier. We were in a race to land on the Moon and we were going to win. We did win.

Now, we seem to be in a different kind of race in which indifference is trying to outlast listlessness, at least for manned missions. Last week’s successful Chinese mission to put a rover on the far side of the Moon shows that the U.S. may once again have serious competition in space. This week’s AVweb Question of the Week reveals 41 percent of readers see the Chinese mission as a wake-up call. I’m among that group.

To be sure, the Chinese are probably years from parity with U.S. space expertise, but complacency all but assures they’ll catch up sooner than we think. I was a tyke of seven when the Soviets launched Sputnik out of nowhere and I clearly recall how shocked and rattled all the adults were. Eleven years later … go for TLI.

Not that NASA has been exactly asleep, mind you. Congress rejected the administration’s efforts to significantly cut NASA’s budget and it has shifted its focus to unmanned planetary research. All good. NASA’s current budget hovers around 0.5 percent of the federal budget, about where it was in 1960. The peak year was 1966 at 4.41 percent.

I suspect Mike Collins would be in alignment with my thinking that permanent manned space capability is a must for the U.S. We are a space faring nation. Period. It’s ludicrous to think that from here forward, our flight capability will be limited to paying the Russians rapacious launch fees for rides to the International Space Station. Yeah, I know, launch systems are in the works—commercial and NASA—but it’s also true we’ve gone nearly a decade without having homegrown manned launch capability that our rivals, the Russians and the Chinese, do have. It’s also true that the mojo to build something like the magnificent Saturn 5 system is eroded, if it exists at all. Manned space flight has national security implications. It has technological implications. The acceptance and overcoming of risk is good for the soul.

So yeah, China on the back side of the Moon is a wake-up call. Now all we have to do is wait for the next John F. Kennedy to hear it.

A word here about SpaceX, which just released photos this week of what it says—or what Elon Musk says—is a test version of a Starship capable of taking people “to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere.” Conceding that SpaceX has had stunning success with its hardware and its vehicles represent bona fide human launch capability, I have to say, I almost think Musk is gaslighting us with that picture. It’s straight out of Buck Rogers, circa 1930.

Kelleher’s Southwest Airlines

In his heartfelt profile of the late Herb Kelleher, Myron Nelson did a superb job of describing what made Herb Herb. I’ll add to that a couple of personal observations on how his vision effects ordinary workaday airline passengers like me.

Southwest has always had a relatively stark economic model and in an airline ecosystem where unbundling and add-on fees have run amok, it’s ever more so. I was comparing airline preferences with a frequent flier friend of mine a few months ago and he said he couldn’t stand Southwest. Why? “I want an assigned seat, that’s why.”

Yeah, I get it, but the beauty of the Southwest approach is that it’s gameable. Get yourself in the A or B group—easy to do—and you can pretty well sit where you want, although probably not always at the front of the airplane. Southwest uses numbered boarding order so you don’t have to play that silly, tense game of trying to edge up in the line to board earlier to avoid that misery of miseries, battling for overhead space. Because the airlines charge to check bags, people try to carry on ever more stuff and cabin crews don’t police it. Even a little. Boarding is an exercise in volumetric Darwinism.

Southwest doesn’t charge for bags, so there’s little combat over bin space. Even boarding nearly last, I’ve never failed to find a spot for my camera gear.

Southwest is often described as a discount airline, but I think it stopped being that sometime ago. For the places I frequently fly, Southwest often has middling fares, not the cheapest. Sometimes they’re the highest. But where Southwest guts the competition, in my view, is flexibility. The most customer-hostile thing airlines do is change fees. These used to be $50, but now are as high as $200, making buying an airline ticket guaranteed buyer’s remorse. Southwest doesn’t charge change fees, which significantly eases the stress of booking because you can always change it or bank a cancellation. 

Kelleher figured out that an employee-centric business would automatically be a customer-centric one, too. The truth in that has been borne out by a half century of remarkable growth. As the industry finds ever more ways to piss off customers and relieve them of nickels and dimes, that business model looks better than ever.

Comments (12)

China on the Moon?
So tell them "welcome to 1966".
Think of it as a country in 2018 making their first gas powered airplane; it's child's play to do such things these days. This is on par with an EAA member making an RV-6A. It can be celebrated but it's neither new ground nor particularly hard for a group of people to do.

This breaks no new technological ground nor should it be "used" by politicians to spend untold trillions of our limited wealth to boldly go (again). If China has trillions to spend, let them send it into the black hole of space. I'm fine with that.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | January 10, 2019 6:54 PM    Report this comment

How many rovers and landers does the US have on Mars at this very moment? 2, maybe 3 if Opportunity is still working. What are the actual scientific objectives of this rover? Driving RC cars on the Moon to say they were "first" at something didn't help the Soviets too much either. The US has an unmatched juggernaut of an entire scientific program that encompasses people and machines invrstigating every planet in the Solar System and galaxies far beyond our own. No one else even comes close, and at this rate, they never will.

But, I suppose we always need SOMETHING to be afraid of, and another Red Menace fits the familiar script.

Posted by: JEFFREY SMITH | January 10, 2019 11:42 PM    Report this comment

My mother-in-law has a good saying: "Americans don't do anything unless their (posteriors) are on fire". I think that's a true, but unfortunate observation. Being so insecure about who and what we are and where we're going results in a lot of failed projects and promises that go unfulfilled. In this case the most egregious is stopping Lunar exploration by cutting the Apollo program at mission 17 once we "beat the Russkies". All of the momentum and industry knowledge gained during that time was literally thrown away. A colleague who worked in the space program at the time said the plans for the Saturn V were tossed out as it was deemed too expensive to even store the blueprints. As a country we need to rid ourselves of the tendency to abandon past successes once we've accomplished the goal, manufactured or otherwise. We're such a big and diverse country that there's room to keep and build on what we've accomplished while pursuing new ventures. We don't need manufactured crises to goad us into moving forward. We should just have a continual program to keep moving forward in space building on success after success. It's not a race. It never was.

Posted by: James Freal | January 11, 2019 5:47 AM    Report this comment

What it means is that China has become a powerful factor. A powerful threat, a powerful competitor. Their five year rapid industrialization plan is a success.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 11, 2019 9:19 AM    Report this comment

In the afterglow of the Apollo moon landing success, most people don't remember that the USSR landed two separate robotic unmanned moon rovers on the Moon in the 1970-73 period; they were called the Lunokhods. These were fairly advanced and did various physical experiments; one even drove 26 miles over the surface which is still a record today.

Never underestimate the competition. I estimate China to be much more dedicated and capable than the USSR of the 1970s but that is only an opinion; yours may vary.

Posted by: A Richie | January 11, 2019 9:27 AM    Report this comment

We would be wise to not dismiss the Chinese accomplishment here. Operating a rover on the back side of the moon is far from child's play - it requires an orbiter to relay signals back to earth, and some level of autonomy for the rover to react to its surroundings when not in communication. It may not be comparable to rovers on Mars, but it's a long way from the 1960's. Our accomplishments with unmanned exploration are cold comfort when we consider we have no way to reach our own space station without paying a large ransom to an adversary who would cut us off if they didn't need our money so badly. Make no mistake, China is not our friend and they are rapidly gaining ground in space exploration. Plus, they will use this achievement for propaganda purposes in third-world nations around the globe - nations where they seek dominance in access to natural resources.

The problem with America's space program is what James Freal described; we only get serious when someone lights a match to our backsides. NASA could fill a museum with all the projects they have proposed, then shelved due to lack of funds and public interest. Their current heavy lift rocket and manned vehicles dangle by a thread waiting for Congress to cut the budget. We try to promote STEM education in our schools, but give the kids few examples of where it might lead. In the 1960's, tens of thousands of young men became engineers because the space program inspired them and showed that science was cool. Maybe it's time someone lit a match.

Posted by: John McNamee | January 11, 2019 11:39 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I'm with you. My first reaction to the photo of Elon Musk's space rocket is that he must have been watching some old Buck Rogers movies.

Posted by: John McNamee | January 11, 2019 11:48 AM    Report this comment

China landed an RC vehicle on the dark side of the moon. Great! Now what do you do with that?

Indeed, space is black hole financially. And what better way to see the end of a nation than when they financially implode due to "exploration". The fall of the Soviet Union was largely due to their military spending resulting in economic bankruptcy. That military spending included all the money spent in the space race. Racing NASCAR, to the moon, or militarily is spendy.

The "space race" was a military competition between the Soviets and us. When that "race" was won and the "competition" was vanquished neither side continued space exploration at the same pace. The military superiority resulted from refining a way to launch something into a pre-determined and predictable orbit. Once that was figured out, there was no need to continue journeys back and forth to the moon.

No doubt that we, as consumers, benefited from the technology. For those who are not consumers like we are, I doubt they realize, use, or are aware of those same benefits. But all of these bennies, regardless of who benefits from them, is based on military superiority rather than altruistic intentions.

China is not exploring space for some meaning to life, no more than we are. Yes there are groups, individuals, and now a few companies looking for a profitable way to make money launching somebody or something into space. But their motivation is profits. And it takes profits to finance meaningful research. There is nothing wrong with innovation, inventions, and a desire to conquer an unknown. Without that, there is no progress.

But nothing matches government spending. And that government spending is not looking for a new way to colonize a distant planet. It is for military, global, and space superiority and the power that comes with that. Since we live on this blue orb, all of this dough for space exploration is intended to provide the power to those who want to rule this roost.

Let the government China investigate the dark side of the moon. We already know the cost of that. Let them spend their way to mediocrity. We know the cost of that too.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | January 11, 2019 12:05 PM    Report this comment

So many of the science fiction writers of the 50's, 60's and 70's thought most countries would have colonies throughout the galaxy by this date. For some reason we are supposed to be concerned about China rover on the moon?

I think sending unmanned drones throughout is a step backwards. I guess we have to start somewhere...

Posted by: Klaus Marx | January 11, 2019 12:14 PM    Report this comment

Killer-sats in the making? I have a bad feeling about this!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 12, 2019 10:17 AM    Report this comment

"Never underestimate the competition. I estimate China to be much more dedicated and capable than the USSR ... ".

Yep, a blind man in a middle of a blizzard can see this coming. China will rule helped by our indifference and pomposity. We are unable to erect ourselves from mediocrity. We are impotent!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | January 12, 2019 10:08 PM    Report this comment

Is there a pill for that?
(It's probably manufactured in China.)

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | January 13, 2019 5:43 AM    Report this comment

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