Saturday, May 7, 2011

China Outside the Blue Dot, Part 5

Space Hotels in the Future and Where the Chinese Might be Going
Qian Xuesen with his wife
and kids.
In 2009, Qian Xuesen died. He didn’t make it to 100, but he came very close (97). Caltech and China alike mourned his death.
Like the rest of Chinese life, time seems to be going by a little faster each year for the country’s aerospace engineers, and much has been planned. The aforementioned Chang’e lunar missions have been successful so far. And there is talk of mining the lunar surface for Helium-3, which, when inhaled, may help scientists create an MRI-like image of a lung functioning in real time (or serve as a hyper-efficient form of alternative fuel). Someone should ask the rabbit about that.
Later this year the space station Tiangong should launch, as well as the unmanned Shenzhou 8 that is supposed to dock with it, as are 9, 10, and 11. A giant space station is planned later, in a few years, we’ll see. On the horizon—a lunar station, which will be a port into deep space.
But elsewhere the culture is changing, and the Chinese have a great deal of competition. NASA has lost a great deal of its funding, which will ironically allow for a new space age in the US and abroad—commercial and civilian space exploration.
Many companies have sprouted up. SpaceX in California is most likely to succeed—they have launched rockets from Cape Canaveral, and are the only private enterprise to have a recoverable satellite. Boeing in Seattle, WA has also received around one hundred million in funding from NASA. Virgin Galactic, lead by British mogul Charles Branson, is the surfer dude in the space yearbook, but they are making headlines and a lot of progress. Just last year, a Brooklyn man and his son tied an iPhone to a balloon that carried it up past 100 mile-an-hour thermal winds to a height of 100,000 feet, where it recorded video of the clear curvature of the earth. A Russian Entrepreneur named Sergei Kostenko announced he is building a space hotel.
Richard Branson (left), CEO of Virgin Galactic, aboard his spaceship.
And Google is sponsoring a contest between civilian groups—clubs, really—that have the money and the expertise to design and build their own ships and plan their own missions. 29 teams are competing for $30 million in prizes for the first teams to send a rover to the moon.
The plans are ambitious, but they are also very strange. A German team’s proposed rover looks something like a pool cleaner, with two giant wheels and a small box sitting on the axel. The Brazilian rover is supposed to inflate, and China’s looks like a race car. The prize money should be delivered by or before 2015.
President Obama with
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in Florida

            A new space race is beginning, wherein SpaceX has offered discounts on their rockets to each team participating in Google’s competition, hoping to move things along (and make money). It feels so very different from the nationalistic rivalry between the US and Russia in the 60’s, and much less harmful.
But while entrepreneurs across the globe are planning missions across the Kármán Line whether their home countries have space programs or not, China’s government is the largest state employer in the industry. India is becoming more involved, and so is Japan, but China is by far the most active of the governments still interested. 
And they are different from anyone among their peers, both past and present. "The mastery of outer space will be a requisite for military victory,” said Shen Zhongchang of the Chinese Navy Research Institute, whatever that means. There are many guesses as to what they are planning, and what they have already done, and experts continue wondering who will run the Pacific Ocean in ten years—the US Aircraft Carriers, or something Chinese.
Italian-American Donald Tito went to space ten years ago, becoming the first space tourist on April 28, 2001. He orbited the earth in a Russian Soyuz craft for two days and floated around in the ISS, listening to Opera and looking out the windows. When he landed in an empty field in Kazakhstan, he climbed out of the pod and told a bunch of Russians that he’d just returned from paradise. Feng Ru experienced the same feeling in Oakland, just before he crashed his first plane. And Qian was so proud, though so bullied, as he built his country’s program from nothing.
But he eventually got recognition.
What will come next, as the West makes money and the Chinese, supposedly, build their strength, will be known to us in time. We can only wait to see, or read in the news afterward, or try to understand from CCTV. Over and Out!

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