Sino-Japanese Space Race

As an aerospace engineer, I understand man’s desire to explore space. To reach beyond his current boundaries, to seek the unknown, to discover what was thought undiscoverable. I admire it, and I want to be a part of it. And yet, I don’t entirely understand Japan’s reasoning here…

Japan, China in Moon Race

(TOKYO) — Japan claims its project is the biggest since Apollo. China says it is readying its probes to study the lunar surface to plan a landing.

With Asia’s biggest powers set to launch their first unmanned lunar missions — possibly as early as next month — the countdown has begun in the hottest space race since the United States beat the Soviet Union to the moon nearly four decades ago.

Japan’s space agency said last week that its SELENE lunar satellite is on track for a Sept. 13 launch, following years of delay as engineers struggled to fix mechanical problems. China, meanwhile, is rumored to be planning a September blastoff for its Chang’e 1 probe, but is coy as to the date.

The Chinese satellite and its Changzheng 3 rocket have passed all tests, and construction of the launch pad is finished, according to the National Space Administration’s Web site. Last month, China’s minister of defense technology told CCTV that all was ready for a launch “by the end of the year.”

Officials have tried to play down the importance of beating each other off the pad, but their regional rivalry is never far below the surface.

“I don’t want to make this an issue of win or lose. But I believe whoever launches first, Japan’s mission is technologically superior,” said Yasunori Motogawa, an executive at JAXA, Japan’s space agency. “We’ll see which mission leads to the scientific breakthroughs.”

China’s military-run space program has taken a great leap forward in recent years, and the country sent shock waves through the region in 2003, when it became the first Asian country to put its own astronauts into space.

China also blasted an old satellite into oblivion with a land-based anti-satellite missile, the first such test ever conducted by any nation, including the United States and Russia. But Japan is right behind China.

After a decade of work, Tokyo in February completed a network of four spy satellites that can monitor any spot on the globe, every day — a program spurred by the 1998 North Korean test of a Taepodong ballistic missile, which flew over Japan’s main island and into the Pacific.

One of the spy satellites has since failed, however, throwing the network’s effectiveness into doubt. Tokyo spends about $500 million a year on the program.

Regional powers India, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan all have satellites in orbit. North Korea says it sent one up with its 1998 ballistic missile launch and to have used it to broadcast hymns about its leader, Kim Jong Il, although the claim has never been substantiated.

The planned lunar missions by China and Japan are among the most ambitious space programs yet.

Japanese space officials have said their $276 million SELENE project is the largest lunar mission since the Apollo program in terms of overall scope and ambition, outpacing the former Soviet Union’s Luna program and NASA’s Clementine and Lunar Prospector projects.

SELENE involves placing a main satellite in orbit around the moon and deploying two smaller satellites in polar orbits to study the moon’s origin and evolution. Japan launched a lunar probe in 1990, but that was a flyby mission, unlike SELENE, which is intended to orbit the moon.

China’s Chang’e 1 orbiter will use stereo cameras and X-ray spectrometers to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust. The country has already spent $185 million on it, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Beijing hopes to retrieve samples from the moon in later missions, according to the project’s Web page, and Xinhua has reported that a manned probe could come within 15 years. Japan is also considering a manned mission by 2025.

“It’s the race for the South Pole all over again,” said Hideo Nagasu, former research head of JAXA’s predecessor organization, the National Aerospace Laboratory. “In the interest of furthering Asia’s space technology, cooperating would be the best option. But I don’t think either side wants to do that just yet.”

And I quote:

“…to map three-dimensional images of the lunar surface and study its dust. The country has already spent $185 million on it…”

I, for one, believe that the world doesn’t spend enough on its space programs. And that which we do spend (although it is in the billions), is used inefficiently, even squandered. If we wanted to establish a base on the moon, we could. If we wanted to send a team to Mars, we could; the technology exists, we just have to get past the administrative roadblocks.

But what Japan seems to be doing is more of a show of national pride (perhaps competitiveness with China) rather than in the genuine spirit of exploring the unknown.

April 12th, 1961: the Russians send the first man into space

July 20th, 1969: the first man steps on the moon

December 14th, 1972: the last man in history steps on the moon (little did he know at the time)

2003: China sends a man into space, becoming the third country to enter the playing field of manned space travel (although several nations sent representatives and specialists to join NASA missions)

Why the forty-year gap? What possible advantage did China have in sending one of their citizens into low orbit? A show of national pride, perhaps, but there was hardly the need to express ability; the technology to send humans into Earth orbit had been around for decades. In fact, it has since been improved upon tremendously with the boom of the private space industry.

At this day in age, it makes more economic sense to base your national space programs around satellite launches [surveillance, communications, defense (China was able to shoot down a satellite from a surface launch)] rather than manned missions; although the experiments conducted aboard the space shuttle and station are invaluable and incapable of being conducted elsewhere, the benefits just aren’t at the magnitude we had expected to see when Neil Armstrong first touched down.

I strongly suspect that’s exactly what both Japan and China are attempting to do, to bring the romantic aspect of lunar exploration back into the public spotlight, to extol the possibilities, in much the same way that we saw back in ’69. The fact that they’re both relative newbies to manned space travel must make it even more enticing: two other countries in a heated race, who knows what kind of technology will crop up as a result?

Unfortunately, I don’t really think it will work the way both of them intend; granted, they still have plenty of funding to keep both programs going, but what they don’t have is the same level of public support and interest. People in general are very bored with space: the administrative hassles, the baseness of the missions (e.g. repairing satellites, studying a flame in microgravity)…

In my opinion, the only event that will entice humanity (or at the very least, the populations of Japan and China) in the way they want is a manned mission to Mars – truly reaching out into the void yet again, with all the perils and promises. Everything else, including this initiative for lunar missions, is inconsequential.