Moon Race: China Gears Up While US Downshifts

In Fast Company’s China Gears Up for Lunar Space Race With World’s Biggest Rocket Factory, China is setting its sites on winning the next Moon Race. Meanwhile, in Washington the Administration wants to let a thousand commercial space companies bloom even as it ignores the will of Congress by not following either in spirit or letter the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. At least, that’s the charitable explanation for the disconnect between the President’s 2012 NASA Budget and the 2010 NASA Act that the President signed last fall. Last week, in separate testimony before the House Space Appropriations and Authorization committees, NASA Administrator Bolden made clear that he didn’t “get it” that Congress had spoken to what the nation’s space policy would be when it passed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Instead, NASA’s budget inverts the policy priorities outlined by Congress in the 2010 Act so that national space is sacrificed in favor of continued subsidies for commercial space.

While taking the same basic path that the Administration took last year, one is left guessing that the Administration must believe that this time, unlike in 2010, the battle to outsource our nation’s human space flight program will turn-out differently. The response from Congress, as evidenced from the hearings of both of the House committees last week, must be leaving some in the Administration with a sense of deja vu all over again. If insanity is indeed defined as doing the same thing but expecting a different outcome, it may be time to hold a mental competency hearing for some in the Administration responsible for developing its 2012 NASA Budget.

A Moon race between China and the US will bring out the best of both nations…well, it will if NASA’s leadership ever decides to follow the laws concerning NASA policy as handed down by Congress. Otherwise, it’s China’s race to loose only if it yanks defeat from the jaws of victory. And for those who wish to walk on the lunar surface again, it may be time to start learning Mandarin, for which there are several good iPhone apps.


  1. Well, do we want to close the spaceflight gap or build a giant HLV? That’s the choice Congress faces. It’s choosing the latter.

    The HLV is vastly too expensive to send humans to LEO. And it chews up so much money that we won’t have any funds left over to send people to the moon much less do anything there. Why do we need an HLV so soon?

    The near-term priority should be:

    1. Fund commercial rockets for LEO missions
    2. Fund commercial crew spacecraft and Orion that can be launched on those rockets
    3. Put the HLV on a slower path.

    China’s target date for landing on the moon is 2030 or so.

    • At a time when NASA is looking at the business end of serious budget cuts, why is it necessary for NASA to subsidize the development of commercial crew space capabilities? Given how the White House’s 2012 NASA Budget has been received by Congress, any of the commercial crew launch companies will be lucky if they see more than a few million in 2011. In any case, the ISS fixed-price supply contracts are available whenever SpaceX or Orbital are ready to start launching cargo, so your first point is met. And Orion, otherwise known as the MPCV, is being funded…very reluctantly by NASA’s leaders.

  2. It’s not a subsidy, it’s an investment. The aim is to provide multiple, redundant access to space using multiple rockets and spacecraft. That will give the U.S. a capability that no one else has. And it’s the last missing piece to making Bigelow’s private stations a reality.

    Orion is an investment that will enable deep-space missions. The same is true of the HLV. But why put them on the front burner when these are longer term projects?

    • As we taxpayers are facing a > $1 trillion deficit and possible cuts in entitlement and discretionary spending of hundreds of billions that will affect hundreds of thousands to millions of taxpayers, why now subsidize to the tune of over 3/4 of a billion dollars commercial crew launch companies?

      Why is “investing” in SpaceX or Orbital so much better than doing so in NASA? Since NASA is owned and operated by the U.S. taxpayers, investing money to develop the SLS and MPCV are an investment as both will result in new capabilities for this nation that will place it at the lead in deep space exploration. Why wait until later to get both systems developed when law directs otherwise? If we agree, as I’m pretty sure we do, that NASA shouldn’t be an operations company, why not have NASA develop a LEO crewed launcher with its commercial contractors and then have that launcher operated by a commercial company as was done by the Air Force with the Atlas V and Delta IV?

  3. The COTS program is not a giant subsidy. Neither is CCDev. They are joint public-private development parnterships in which NASA and private companies have put in own funding in order to create systems and capabilities that the space agency and the private sector need.

    NASA is funding the Orion vehicle and an HLV. It’s just that Orion is best suited for deep space, which is some years in the future. Same for the HLV.

    The commercial systems can be developed quicker. The safety ugrades for ULA’s Atlas and Delta boosters are relatively straight forward. A program that focused on manrating existing boosters, Orion and the CCDEV crew vehicles would be a fine approach for the near term. Plenty of Orion testing you can do in Earth orbit.

    The commercial crew gets us multiple, redundant access to orbit. It opens up LEO to commercial ventures like Bigelow’s station (and other ones). It allows NASA to turn over LEO ops to private sector while focusing on deep space exploration.

    The problem with HLV is not just timing but that what Congress wants to do makes little sense. It’s not clear we need 130 tons to LEO. And it would be excessively expensive using the technology they want to use for it. I agree that some form of heavy lift is needed, just not that one.

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