Podcaster: Chris Impey
Organization: University of Arizona
Description: This week Professor Chris Impey, from the University of Arizona and author of the book: Beyond: Our Future in Space, presents his third in a series of five podcasts on human space exploration, beginning with the recent growth in private sector space launches and looking to the future of human spaceflight.
Bio: Chris Impey (http://chrisimpey-astronomy.com/) is a University Distinguished Professor and deputy head of the astronomy department at the University of Arizona. His astronomy research focuses on observational cosmology, using telescopes and other instruments to study the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe. He also does research on education and science literacy. Chris is also the the creator of the Teach Astronomy website (http://www.teachastronomy.com/), which supports non-science majors, and he is teaching free massive open online classes (MOOC) through Udemy and Coursera with over 40,000 students enrolled. He has taught cosmology to Tibetan monks as the astronomy faculty leader for the Science for Monks program, and is an author of multiple books, the most recent of which is titled: Beyond: Our Future In Space.
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Hainan Island, 2025. The tropical air shudders as the Long March 9 rocket climbs into the sky and disappears, leaving behind only tendrils of smoke. Thousands of miles away in Tiananmen Square, plasma screens show the launch to a vast, cheering crowd. The rocket is carrying China’s 98th, 99th, and 100th taikonauts to the Moon, where they will take their turn manning the recently established lunar base.
Fiction? Fantasy? Or a plausible projection of China’s current arc of space development?
China has been aggressively pursuing ambitious goals in space. With budgets that track their economic growth of 8 to 10 percent a year, they’re not just copying American and Soviet technology but are innovating and growing their own talented corps of engineers and designers. Contrast this with NASA’s stagnant budget and America’s inability to get an astronaut into orbit without Russian help since 2011. China will become the world’s economic powerhouse in a few years; they may well be the preeminent player in space a few years after that.
If China is number one, they will be recapturing their glorious history. Gunpowder was invented in China in the 1st century A.D. and by the 13th century they were using multi-stage, guided rockets in battle to repel Mongol invaders. Wan Hu tried to become China’s first astronaut in the early 16th century. The mid-level Ming dynasty official sat in a sturdy bamboo chair with 47 rockets attached. At his signal, 47 assistants lit the fuses and rushed for cover. Wan Hu’s dreams went up in smoke but the Chinese craving to project their power into space continued unabated.
Qian Xuesen was the father of the Chinese space program. This MIT-trained engineer helped found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the late 1940’s, but he was accused of espionage in 1955 and deported. Mao Zedong was delighted; he had lamented that his country couldn’t launch a potato into space. Over his long career, Qian Xuesen led the development of Chinese ballistic missiles and the Long March series of rockets.
In 2003, China became the third country to send an astronaut, or taikonaut as they dub them, into space. Since then their ascent has been rapid. By 2014, ten taikonauts had spent time in orbit and China had launched an orbital space lab and a lunar rover. A new launch facility on Hainan Island in the south will give an extra assist from the Earth’s spin in hurling large payloads into space. They’re even planning a Disney-like theme park near the launch pads.
The United States still accounts for half of the world’s spending on space technology but its share is dropping. China is in eighth place but moving up fast. In addition to a buoyant budget, the Chinese space program benefits from a command and control economy and the unflinching support of their political leaders, who view it as an emblem of national pride. The taikonauts are patriotic and earnest. At the launch of Shenzou 10 in 2013, marking the tenth anniversary of the first Chinese person in space, President Xi Jinping said “Your mission is both glorious and sacred.” Mission commander Xie Haisheng dutifully responded: “We will certainly obey orders, comply with commands, be steady and calm, and perfectly complete the Shenzou 10 mission.”
The Chinese technical approach is methodical and relentless. The average age of their engineers is under thirty, half the age of most NASA engineers. The days when space was the hegemony of the United States or the Soviet Union are over. Objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear.
So it is fairly easy to project the space landscape twenty years from now. The United States will still be a major player, but with government dithering and unable to make strategic plans, most of the innovation will come from the private sector. Russia will still have a seat at the table, but oil revenues will not be able to overcome their decaying infrastructure and loss of talent. New participants like India and Brazil will be flexing their muscles.
But the Chinese will be in the driver’s seat. Their Long March 9 rocket will be able to put 130 metric tonnes into orbit, slightly more than America’s planned Space Launch System and more than any previous rocket. They will have used their modular space lab system to build a fully-fledged and continuously occupied space station, while the International Space Station has years before de-orbited and burned up in the atmosphere. They will have sent rovers and the first humans to Mars and they will have a lunar base in early operation.
All this from a country with nuclear weapons, a robust military satellite program, and a propensity to ignore international opinion, as when they destroyed one of their own satellites with a missile in 2007. Only time will tell if the dragon is benign or malign. There’s plenty of room for all countries in space. But not if we mostly stay stuck on the ground.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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