19 June 2012

China Playing "Catch-Up" in Space Race

Update 27 June 2012: China Deeply Suspicious of USAF X-37B Spaceplane

China successfully docked its Shenzhou 9 spacecract with an orbiting spacelab, just weeks after private US space company SpaceX delivered cargo to the International Space Station. While China's accomplishment should be celebrated as a milestone in that nation's ability to achieve a human presence in space, we should have no illusions about China's current ranking in the international space race.

China's space activity is an appendage of its military organisation. That will be a drag on its speed of space accomplishments -- not only compared with much smaller and more nimble SpaceX, but even with the US military, significant parts of which have adopted the motto: "smaller, cheaper, faster, better."
...the X-37B seems to be a triumph of spacecraft reusability, the holy grail of latter-day western space flight. In December 2010, the first X-37B (called OTV-1) landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after a 220-day mission, its nose still glowing in infrared footage with the residual heat of its incandescent re-entry. Now that mission time has been more than doubled by the second vehicle which landed on 16 June: OTV-2 managed an astonishing 469 days in orbit. _NewScientist

In geopolitical terms, and at a time of major cost pressures, developing viable reusability like this is key. It is the major technology driver for SpaceX, for example, the first firm to fly a commercial cargo flight to the ISS and which is now converting that technology for crewed missions. Boeing says the X-37B is designed to develop "reusable space vehicle technologies that could become key enablers for future space missions". Its design is scalable, too, so larger versions could be made to carry astronauts.

So while China's achievement today is impressive, it's on the trailing edge of space-flight technology: the US and Russia docked with their own orbital space stations in the early 1970s - and even with each other in Apollo and Soyuz capsules in 1975. Congratulations to the Chinese space agency - but the landing of the X-37B only serves to show them how far they have to go. _NewScientist

USAF X37B Lands AFter 469 Days in Orbit

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