The Lunar Yellow Peril

So, the Chinese government released a white paper outlining its space plans the other day, and it’s apparently driven some pundits loony tunes.

In a post titled "The Obama Legacy: Ceding Earth To Islamists And The Moon To China," Tammy Bruce was quick to bash the Obama administration over what she perceives as its feckless space policy. Over at IBD, Andrew Malcolm similarly blames the Obama administration for what he declares a “crippling” of the U.S. space program (apparently unaware that the real culprit is the Congress, on a bi-partisan basis, in its pursuit of pork).

But the latest and most egregious in its misunderstanding of both China's space policy and ours comes from conservative commentator Cal Thomas, who manages to get at least two things wrong in his opening paragraph:

President Obama’s decision in 2010 to cut NASA’s budget and abandon the Constellation program, established by the Bush administration, which was charged with returning Americans to the moon by 2020 and creating an “extended human presence on the moon,” has created a vacuum, which China will attempt to fill.

First, the administration actually proposed an increase in NASA’s budget. And while the original Vision for Space Exploration had a goal of a lunar return by 2020, one had to be delusional to believe that Constellation, as it was being implemented, had a prayer of doing so. In 2009, the Augustine Panel essentially said as much, which is why the administration came up with a new policy that, while not explicitly declaring a lunar return as a goal, would have made it possible sooner in a much more affordable way. Also, the notion that the Chinese are doing this only because we don’t seem to be makes no sense. Does he really think that these plans only arose from an absence of our own, and that they wouldn’t be pursuing the moon if we were?

The second paragraph, in describing China’s ambitions, is worse:

China has announced an ambitious five-year plan that includes the launch of space laboratories, a manned spaceship to the moon and the creation of its own global satellite navigation system that will almost certainly be used for military purposes.

He implies that the Chinese will be sending men to the moon within five years, but that’s not what the white paper says:

China will push forward human spaceflight projects and make new technological breakthroughs, creating a foundation for future human spaceflight.

It will launch the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spaceships and achieve unmanned or manned rendezvous and docking with the in-orbit Tiangong-1 vehicle.

China will launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters; make breakthroughs in and master space station key technologies, including astronauts’ medium-term stay, regenerative life support and propellant refueling; conduct space applications to a certain extent and make technological preparations for the construction of space stations.

China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.

That’s it. It will “conduct studies on the preliminary plan.” Or perhaps it will contemplate the possibility of conducting such studies. Either way, no taikonauts are going to be making footprints on the moon any time soon.

The last sentence of Thomas’s paragraph implies that both the lunar mission and the satellite navigation system are for military purposes. Well, of course the latter is. It’s why we developed GPS, which is, after all, a U.S. Air Force system. That its civilian use has exploded doesn’t change that fact, and the potential threat of having it shut down in a crisis is why the Europeans want to build their own Galileo system. It’s certainly natural that China would also like to not be dependent on a navigation system controlled by the U.S. military.

Later he expands on the theme of the military lunar base.

Who doubts that China will use trips to the moon to build a permanent colony and will operate that colony, at least in part, to further its military goals? China certainly will have the capability through its own GPS system to jam or make mischief with America’s global positioning system network.

Well, Cal, for one, I doubt it. U.S. military planners have been spending decades trying to come up with a justification for a military man in space (I did a stint of it myself in the early eighties at the Aerospace Corporation, and later at Rockwell when we were trying to sell the Air Force a “blue” Shuttle orbiter), and have not been able to do so, at least at current launch costs. If we can’t find military utility for earth orbit missions, how much less relevant is putting a base on the moon (and commenters, don’t waste time citing The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress -- it’s science fiction, and the notion has been debunked multiple times)?

I think that, when it comes to militarily useful lunar bases, the burden of proof is on those proposing them, and there’s nothing in Cal Thomas’s column to indicate that he’s given it any deep thought, except that anything the Chinese choose to do must be nefarious. I’ll take this threat seriously when I see it described, using real-world physics, and yes, show your work. Beyond that, I’d like an explanation of how a rival navigation system can “jam or make mischief” with our own, in a way that couldn’t be done much more cost effectively.

That is not, of course, to say that it isn’t in general worthwhile to have a lunar base. Bob Bigelow has been issuing warnings for almost a year that the Chinese want to claim the entire place, for reasons of national prestige. This would be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits claims of national sovereignty, though they could of course withdraw, and bribe the General Assembly to go along. And to me, the question is, how would they physically defend such a claim? The moon isn’t a small place (its surface area is equivalent to a significant fraction of that of earth’s continents). If there is such a concern, one way to preempt it might be to pass the Space Settlement Prize Act, which would force a recognition of private, but not governmental, claims and prevent anyone from claiming an entire body.

But both the Chinese and NASA are far from being able to affordably get humans to the moon, and until they dramatically change their modi operandi (and we get a new Congress), they’re going to remain so. What both government space agencies should fear is Bigelow and SpaceX establishing a lunar base, and rendering them both irrelevant.