More bad news for NASA: even their administrator thinks China could beat the US to the Moon. Speaking with the BBC today, Michael Griffin shared his views about the Chinese space aspirations, pointing out that the super-state could, if they wanted to, send a manned mission to the lunar surface within a decade. NASA’s return mission to the Moon is planned to launch, at the earliest, in 2020, so this news is bound to knock the wind out of the US space agency’s hopes to continue where it left off in 1972…
In the last five years, China has been teetering on the edge of a full-manned space program. In 2003, the nation became only the third country to put a national into space (following the Russia and the USA), blasting Yang Liwei into orbit for 21 hours on the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft. Shenzhou 6 was launched with two astronauts (or “taikonauts”) on board, spending five days orbiting the Earth in 2005. This year, shortly after the Beijing Olympics in October, China is sending another manned mission into orbit, only this time it is hoped a spacewalk will be possible. With this rapid succession of successful manned launches, it comes as no surprise that attention is swinging away from NASA and to China for the next big step into space.
The last time man set foot on the Moon was in 1972 when Eugene Andrew Cernan, last man on the Moon, boarded the Apollo 17 lunar module. That was 36 years ago and space flight has changed significantly since then, now NASA has more competition, as highlighted by Griffin during a visit to London:
“Certainly it is possible that if China wants to put people on the Moon, and if it wishes to do so before the United States, it certainly can. As a matter of technical capability, it absolutely can.” – Dr Michael Griffin
As to whether it actually matters whether China are the next to land on the Moon is open to interpretation. After all, the first nation to set foot on Earth’s natural satellite was the USA, so is a return trip a big psychological “victory” for China? “I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t say if it matters or not. That would just be an opinion and I don’t want to air an opinion in an area that I’m not qualified to discuss,” Griffin added.
Recently, there has been increased cooperation between the US and China when sharing science and information. “We do have some early co-operative initiatives that we are trying to put in place with China, mostly centred around scientific enterprises. I think that’s a great place to start,” he said. Although many will view an early Chinese lunar mission as a NASA failure, both nations appear to be trying to forge close relationships that could possibly lead to joint space missions in the future. After all, even at the peak of the Cold War, the US and Russia began working on a common goal.
“I think we’re always better off if we can find areas where we can collaborate rather than quarrel. I would remind your [audience] that the first US-Soviet human co-operation took place in 1975, virtually at the height of the Cold War. And it led, 18 years later, to discussions about an International Space Station (ISS) programme in which we’re now involved.” – Dr Michael Griffin
Regardless of who gets to the Moon first, Griffin will be feeling the pressure of the “five-year gap” between the Shuttle being retired in 2010 and Constellation completion in 2015, there is still little alternative than relying on Russia and Europe for US access to space. Griffin has tried to increase Constellation funding by $2bn to bring completion forward by a year, but the application was quickly turned down by Congress. Those five long years may be more costly than the US government realizes as NASA loses more footing in manned access to space…