China Is Ready for a Space War


 July 24, 2020

On July 21, in 1969, Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. They were the first of a select group of Americans to be the only humans to do so. Fast forward to more recent times: in May, the world saw America return to launching American’s to space with the SpaceX launch to the International Space Station. Now, in just ten days, NASA will launch its Perseverance rover to Mars, the latest in a fleet of American vehicles on the red planet. The historic anniversary of Apollo 11 and NASA current activities remind us of both America’s dominant history as well as its current dynamism in space.

Under NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s strong leadership, NASA’s long-awaited Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has come to fruition with the May 30 launch of two NASA astronauts to the station and subsequent successful docking—signifying America’s return to putting people into space under its own flag, and not relying on the services of others—especially countries like Russia that are strategic competitors. Moreover, this return occurs with an embrace of the dynamism of the free market. NASA is getting out of the business of putting astronauts and material into low-Earth orbit. Not only can NASA buy these services at competitive market rates from American firms, stimulating a new sector of the U.S. economy, it can now focus on its greater national priority—expanding U.S. access to deeper space—the Moon, Mars, and beyond.  

This represents the next generational leap for NASA—Apollo took Americans to the moon, and the space shuttle cemented American leadership in building the International Space Station—but NASA was stuck in low-earth orbit. By transitioning the earth to orbit taxi/freight business to American commercial launchers, it can now take Americans to the Moon, Mars and beyond. This major shift in NASA’s operations gets lost in media commentary, coming at the same time that China’s space program has made great strides. 

Chinese announcements come frequently—plans for Chinese landers, Chinese crew on the Moon, new Chinese space launchers, Chinese plans for a space station, and an upcoming Chinese launch to Mars.  It all sounds impressive—but let’s remember, as NASA has learned, it is easier to announce plans than it is to accomplish them. In considering most of China’s ambitious plans, it’s worth noting that NASA’s already done all of that—most of it decades ago.

  • China on the moon?  Let’s look back forty years—NASA put Americans on the Moon in six crewed missions between 1969 and 1972; and is sending Americans back by 2024, with a sustained American presence on the moon through the Artemis program by 2028.  Overall, more than fifty missions to the Moon have failed, including recently by an Israeli company.  While talking about the Moon is easy, getting to the Moon is hard. 
  • China plans for space launch?   Setting aside its long history, America has revolutionized space launch in recent years through both commercial and government launchers, with SpaceX (and others working on it) re-taking the low-earth orbit launch market and building the world’s current heaviest launcher, the Falcon Heavy, and NASA building the Space Launch System which will be the heaviest still when it launches with a third more lift capability in 2021.
  • A Chinese space station?  Over twenty years, NASA evolved the U.S. space station Freedom into a U.S.-led international coalition for the $100 billion International Space Station with Russia, Japan, Canada and eleven members of the European Space Agency. The United States shouldered over half of the overall cost of building it, including thirty-six space shuttle missions. It has been continuously manned for almost twenty years (it will be twenty years in November 2020)—with 151 Americans (three times more than the next highest nation, Russia with about fifty).
  • A Chinese Mars mission?  NASA has had eight successful Mars landers/rovers (Viking I/II, Pathfinder, Spirit/Opportunity, Phoenix, Curiosity and InSight) and launched at least six successful Mars orbiters, including some which have returned exquisite science about the planet—the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) includes the HiRISE (The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment at the University of Arizona—the powerful HIRISE camera takes pictures that cover vast areas of Martian terrain while being able to see features as small as a kitchen table.  Only two nations—the United States and the former USSR—have successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars (and the Soviet lander, Mars 3, failed twenty seconds after landing), and only four have successfully put spacecraft in orbit: the United States, the former USSR, European Space Agency and India.  More than twenty-eight missions to Mars have failed—and China will try again this year, after having last tried to reach Mars in 2011.  Since then, with three rovers (Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity) and one planned for launch in July (Perseverance), Mars has been an American frontier. Getting to Mars is hard, too.

NASA runs the most comprehensive space exploration program of the solar system, with more missions than the rest of Earth combined.  For a quick survey of the solar system, NASA’s Mariner 10 and MESSENGER spacecraft are the only missions to have explored Mercury but the European Space Agency’s BepiColumbo is on its way. The United States and USSR both sent missions to explore Venus in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, followed by the European Space Agency and Japan in the 2000s. Mars has largely been an American frontier not only for its rovers but for its orbiters as well, including the OdysseyMars ExpressMars Reconnaissance OrbiterMars Orbiter MissionMAVEN, and the Trace Gas Orbiter. Others are launching to Mars this year, with the UAE, India, and China sending missions that could join the Americans there. The only ten missions to Jupiter and Saturn have been U.S. missions, although some required the participation of the European Space Agency, and America is the only nation to send missions to Uranus and Neptune (Voyager 2) and Pluto (New Horizons).

As China is making new developments in space, NASA’s dominance in that region makes it the envy of the planet. In addition to its impressive history, NASA is currently running more than eighty-five active missions to explore the solar system, the Commercial Crew Program is now coming to fruition, it is returning Americans to the moon, and developing the hardware go to Mars. This is happening in addition to NASA’s contributions to the U.S. economy, and to education in America, both of which help make the case for continued investment in NASA and to maintain NASA’s lead over China and other strategic competitors. As China continues its progress, Americans need to remember their country’s historical, current and future dominance in space. This context is important for recalling, especially when it comes to China, that it is easier to plan a mission than it is to achieve the mission’s end goal.

By Shay Stautz
Source: National Interest


Written and produced by SF Team: J.Hawk, Daniel Deiss, Edwin Watson

In the last several decades, and certainly in the post-9/11 environment in which the previous restrictions on the militarization of the American society largely disappeared, the US national security establishment has expand not only by creating new programs and agencies, but also by co-opting non-state actors. Many a US think-tank is now little more than an extension of some US government agency, conducting research to validate previously arrived-at conclusions in furtherance of a specific institutional agenda. Likewise many corporations have gone beyond being mere defense or intelligence contractors. Rather, their business activities are from the outset designed to be readily weaponizable, meshing seamlessly with the armed services and intelligence agencies.

It is not entirely clear how the process works, for there does not appear to be a system of contract awards for specific deliverables. Rather, it seems these capabilities are developed on the initiative of specific businesses which speculate their efforts will be utilized by the US national security establishment ever on the lookout for technological “game-changers”. Moreover, given the unchecked growth of the US national security budget, these entrepreneurs can operate in high confidence their efforts will also be financially rewarded by the intelligence and defense establishments, even if they are not commercially viable.

There have been numerous examples of initially civilian applications being put to use for the benefit of US national security institutions. Facebook has made its databases available to various agencies to test facial recognition technologies, for example. Google and Amazon make their cloud capabilities available to the Pentagon and the intelligence communities. The opposition to China’s Huawei 5G networks and cell phones appears to be motivated by the concern these systems do not have backdoors installed for the benefit of US national security state.

Elon Musk’s business empire has benefitted from its proximity to the US national security state. Musk, an immigrant from the Republic of South Africa, has made his initial fortune by creating PayPal. While Musk has sold his remaining interest in PayPal in 2002, that entity has since then engaged in furthering US national security agendas by blocking payments to organizations which were critical of US policies. This, however, is probably more of a reflection of the subservience of US tech firms to the US government than of Musk’s original intent.

Nevertheless, the timing of Musk’s departure from PayPal and the entry into the space business is noteworthy. Already in the late 1990s, there were rumblings in the United States about the desirability of militarizing space and building up anti-ballistic missile defenses, ostensibly against the so-called “rogue states” of North Korea and Iran. These initiatives gained considerable impetus in 2001, following the election of the Bush-Cheney administration which promptly moved to end the ABM Treaty as the first step toward the future of weaponization of space.

Space-X’s establishment in 2002, the same year the ABM Treaty collapsed due to the Bush Administration abrogation, seems entirely too convenient to be a mere coincidence, even though the stated aims of the company are mainly commercial. Still, it is easy to imagine why a firm focused on the development of low-cost, possibly reusable, space launch vehicles would be useful to the Pentagon. Creating a government program with the same objective would have attracted unnecessary attention. There would be budget appropriations battles, congressional testimony, various forms of oversight, and the inevitable domestic and international opposition to such destabilizing and provocative initiatives. Providing Space-X with technological assistance, allowing it to hire government specialists, then giving it access to lucrative government space launch orders, is a far more attractive proposition. Moreover, the bypassing of the normal defense contracting system actually meant considerable cost savings, thanks to Musk’s red tape-cutting techniques. Its design bureau functioned in a fashion akin to Lockheed’s famous “skunk works” which developed extremely ambitious projects such as the U-2 and SR-71 in large part thanks to being able to fly “under the radar” (no pun intended). However, since that time Lockheed ballooned into a massive “too big to fail” defense contractor which delivers costly and poorly performing aircraft.

Musk’s fantasies about colonizing Mars and selling seats on orbital space flights proved a very effective cover for the corporation’s core military applications. Moreover, Space-X’s status as a private corporation allows it to defray some of the research and development costs through genuine commercial activities. Yet one has to wonder whether SpaceX success would have been as spectacular if it weren’t for privileged access to government facilities. SpaceX has been able to piggy-back on the massive US government investment in space launch facilities. It is able to operate out of not only Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, but even from the Vandenberg Air Force Base. The speed with which SpaceX was able to develop, test, and deploy several different new rocket engine design of the Kestrel, Merlin, Raptor, and Draco families also may be due to privileged access to technologies developed for NASA and military space programs.

Even though SpaceX was founded in 2002, it won a $100 million USAF space launch contract in 2005 and the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract in 2006, even though the first orbital mission of the Falcon I rocket would not take place until 2008. USAF awarded another $1 billion contract to SpaceX in early 2008, even before the first Falcon I flight. SpaceX has become the de-facto research and development branch of NASA when it comes to manned spaceflight. The 2014 NASA contract for the Crew Dragon has so far resulted in one successful docking with the International Space Station, though without a crew on board, and was followed by a successful splashdown. The larger Starship reusable heavy manned spacecraft is expected to start flying in the 2020s.

Competition from United Launch Services and even Boeing notwithstanding, there is little doubt SpaceX is to US manned spaceflight what Boeing is to heavy commercial aircraft and Lockheed-Martin to “fifth-generation” fighters. It has become the primary go-to contractor of such systems for both commercial and military US government applications, with the competitors being maintained in existence with occasional contracts largely as insurance against spectacular failure of SpaceX.

SpaceX portfolio of reusable space launch vehicles, manned spacecraft, and most recently also satellites means that the company is well positioned to serve as a one-stop shopping center for the newly created branch of the US armed forces. Given the United States’ desire to weaponize space as part of its effort to undermine strategic nuclear deterrence of rival powers, namely the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, there is every reason to expect SpaceX will be a recipient of considerable financial largesse from the USSF.

Arguably the most intriguing project SpaceX is pursuing is Starlink, a proposed network of over four thousand miniature satellites whose ostensible aim is to provide broadband internet service to the entire planet. However, the interest in Starlink demonstrated by the US military suggests that, once again, this is at the very least a dual-use project. Articles discussing the military’s interest in Starlink cite the possibility of it becoming the replacement for the aging J-STARS airborne ground target acquisition radars, suggesting these satellites’ emissions can be used to track moving land objects.. If that is indeed the case, they could also serve the role of anti-ballistic missile warning satellites, and even be used to track stealth aircraft, since the constellation of satellites would function as a massive distributed multi-static radar array.

The mad pace of SpaceX has not been without mishaps. The Crew Dragon, in particular, suffered a number of embarrassing failures, and it may yet be that the corner-cutting hell-for-leather approach the corporation may yet lead to disaster when applied to the considerably more demanding problem of manned spaceflight. Other private entrepreneurs, such as Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, either suffered fatal accidents that greatly delayed their respective programs or prompted their shut-down. G_7 SpaceX, however, differs from them in that its main customer is the US government that is greatly interested in having the USSF dominate the Earth’s orbit in the same way as the USN dominates the global ocean by establishing large-scale permanent presence of US military personnel in space. The US government has gambled SpaceX will deliver products necessary for such domination. Whether it can do that still remains to be seen.

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