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Saturday, December 31, 2011

When there's a will there's a way

In general, the American public seems to emit mixed signals when it comes to a national space program. Yes, there is the perception that space should rightfully be the domain of the United States – after all, look at the proud legacy of space stations, space walks, and orbital rendezvous operations. And let's not forget the nationality of the crews who repeatedly went to the moon. Been there, done that.

The problems is that legacies refer to events of the past.

Now, on this last day of 2011, the national will to commit to future endeavors is either not there, or it exists in such a weakened state that the United States now finds itself in a predicament much discussed: for the time being, it's a country that can't even launch its own astronauts.

Despite all the talk of the Commercial Crew Development initiatives (and there is no doubt several private organizations have made true, significant strides chasing the goal of developing new implementations of manned space flight) the overall responsibility for deep space exploration and placing man where no man has gone before lays at the feet of NASA. The companies involved in CCDev are in it with an eye toward financial opportunities opening through low earth orbit operations; the profitability of deep space exploation? Well...

While NASA administers the CCDev program, it continues to struggle to fund its more glamorous-but-expensive exploration ventures in a political climate that is occasionally financially hostile and always unpredictable.

George W. Bush announces the Constellation Program in 2004.

Eight years ago, President George W. Bush announced the inception of the Constellation Program. As announced, the program was full of visions promising the development of new manned vehicles and a series of booster spacecraft, with a manned return to the moon as part of the deal. To make it happen, the plan also called for the retirement of the space shuttles in favor of refocusing work efforts on the new program.

As 2012 begins, the space shuttles are indeed retired, the orbiters gutted and nearly ready for museum display. As for Constellation, it was canceled by the current Obama administration – and perhaps not without financial reason, some argue. Instead, the new plan is to morph the foundation development done to date under the Constellation banner into a new combination: the Space Launch System will be the massive heavy-lift vehicle, and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Orion will loft the crews on new deep space explorations.

An artist conception of the Space Launch System lifting off from one of the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center.

Unfortunately, political support for the SLS/MPCV has been far from unwavering, and it would be safe to say there are differences of opinion throughout the aerospace community about the viability of the program.

In contrast, this last week of 2011 saw the release of a document by the Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, detailing that nation's own space plans.

Building on successes ranging from manned extravehicular activity in orbit to lunar probe operations, China is setting an ambitious agenda for the next five years and beyond. Their goals range from the development of a new generation of heavy-lift vehicles to creating the foundation required to place Chinese astronauts upon the surface of the moon in less than a decade.

It all sounds like an aggressive and exciting plan – but haven't we heard similar glowing visions of the space future before? Many aspects of the plans China has announced echo those of President Bush's own Constellation speech.

Here, though, the difference is simple: national will. China knows that space is a high-profile playing field. That translates into a certain means of drawing global respect with a successful space program dramatically checking off increasingly challenging milestones.

Yang Liwei within the Shenzhou V spacecraft, shortly before his successful orbital flight in 2003 - a tremendous milestone achieved for the People's Republic of China.

Already having successfully launched manned spacecraft, China is now at the unique stage that once characterized the Apollo program – balancing the critical requirement of moving forward carefully and safely with the burning desire to capitalize on each success with a headlong rush into orbit and beyond. But the greatest advantage this Chinese program has is simple: unwavering national support. Once committed to this effort, things will happen, progress will be made. Setting aside debates about political ideologies and how the People's Republic of China chooses to rule over those very people, when it comes to achieving its goals in space this government will adapt the words of a certain fictional space commander: make it so.

As those steps are taken by our rival on the global economic and scientific stages, perhaps the American vision will be forced to shift from legacies to the opportunities of the future. As this new year begins, only time will tell.