Excerpts from question-and-answer period, Senate Space Subcommittee, Washington, DC, April 27, 2004, ‘international lunar exploration’. [Only the passages involving comments by me were sent to me for review].
Senator Brownback: Thank you, Mr. Oberg. Let’s run the clock at 10 minutes and Will and I will bounce back and forth here. Who, on currently announced schedules or plans that we are ascertaining where people are going if we don’t have clearly announced schedules, what country will be the first back to the moon with a human mission and by when, on currently announced or schedules that we are looking at and appraising what they are doing if they haven’t publicly made announcements.
Mr. Oberg: I think the competition is not very large because the Chinese have said -- the problem with Chinese information is that we’re still not certain how to translate a lot of the terms and there’s mistranslation and there are comments made from people over there whose authority to make the comments we’re not probably sure of, but the comments from Beijing and elsewhere that they have a program to put people on the moon I think are not credible. Nor do they need that program now. What they need now is laying the foundation for later deciding to do it. So the only announcement of a schedule I’ve seen for anyone is NASA’s.
Senator Brownback: China will have the capacity to go with a human mission to the moon by when, given a successful set of developments in rockets that they’re into now?
Mr. Oberg: I think we can reasonably expect them to repeat the schedule for the Shenzhou mission: approved in 1992, began construction of the launch facility at Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert in 1993. It took 5 years to build the launch facility and the processing buildings. First unmanned test flight of Shenzhou, 1999, first manned flight, late ‘03, so it’s about 11 years from approval to first manned flight.
They could probably put more money and do that sooner because they’ve already done it once now, but I don’t think a lot sooner. I would say doing it in less than half that time is just not believable. Otherwise, we’re just guessing. But 6 to 12 years would be a number I would put as a range from the time they decide, let’s send people to the moon.
Senator Brownback: Well, maybe I then didn’t hear you quite right on this, Jim. I thought you said that if they successfully test this launch capacity by the end of this decade, they will then be able to make a determination whether or not they want to go to the moon and they will have a number of pieces in place to be able to do that.
Mr. Oberg: They will have those pieces. They would then be able to begin testing spacecraft. Their approach to Shenzhou is much more methodical and slower than most of us outside observers, myself included, thought. It took them longer to get from the first test to the manned flight, but when they got there, they got there perfectly. The mission was, as far as we can tell, perfect. When it comes to lunar flight, if by the end of this decade the Chang Zheng 5-500 rocket is operational and has been launched and they at that point want to use it for a manned lunar flight, it would only be a matter I think of a couple years before they could carry that out. So in that case, we re looking at 8 years, and I think 8 years is something that is plausible, but again, based on decisions I don’t think have been made yet.
Senator Brownback: You think from where they are today, they could be on the moon in 8 years if radical decisions are made?
Mr. Oberg: They could be doing flights in lunar orbit. The step to get onto the moon requires that a whole new booster family beyond this new one would come along or they’d begin to go multiple launches -- and they do not do multiple launches, have not in the past, although their launch rate is doubling and the budget’s doubling. They’re launching more vehicles this year than they ever launched.
So getting people in lunar orbit like Apollo 8 is something that is conceivably within their reach in the time scale we’re looking at, 8 years I’d say is a good guess. But to put people onto the lunar surface is a whole other project that is again a step beyond that. It’s a step for them and for us, because I’ve seen various estimates of when NASA thinks it could get people back on the lunar surface and we’re talking about -- well, John, you’re more familiar with those than I am.
Dr. Logsdon: The official date in the President’s policy is between 2015 and 2020, so those time scales could converge if China has the appropriate developments with its new class of vehicles, that both the United States and China could be conceiving of human missions landing on the moon the second half of the next decade.
Senator Brownback: And roughly the same time?
Mr. Oberg: Yes.
Senator Brownback: That they would be on track in development to be in a position to put a person back, a person on the moon in roughly the same time the U.S. would be under our current announced schedules?
Dr. Logsdon: That seems to be the case, yes.
Mr. Oberg: We have some very explicit comments from Chinese officials about their philosophy for their future strategies. They will not be retreading past ground, they’ve said. They will be doing things with the moon different than have been done in the past, doing things out in space different. If we are fixated on being on the moon to reprise Apollo, we may overlook, what other people have not overlooked. This has been mentioned before, there are other missions beyond low-Earth orbit that don’t involve lunar surface access. They are either lunar orbit or in the Lagrange points around the moon, which are of great interest for a number of reasons, for using it for staging eventually to a lunar surface. These missions don’t require a lot more propulsion than getting to the moon, but only more life support to go beyond the moon: either just out into interplanetary space and back, or out at the times when there are asteroids passing within a few million miles of the Earth, to visit them and return.
Now, these near-Earth asteroid missions -- if I can intuitively say, what would be most attractive to the Chinese based on the strategy they’ve already developed and the rationales they’ve already discussed, to make a point to themselves and the rest of the world, I would not put the lunar surface as the target. I would put something that is much more spectacular that would be one heck of a demonstration of their abilities -- and would steal a march on all of NASA’s official plans.
Senator Brownback: Jim, what’s happened in the Chinese budget over the last five years -- space budget?
Mr. Oberg: We’ve seen the budget -- the official budget figures double. We’ve seen the launch rate --
Senator Brownback: The last five years?
Mr. Oberg: The last five years. And we’ve seen the launch rate double, and may double again in the next year or two.
The Chinese have not made a lot of launches. In their Long March series of rockets over the past 30 years, they total about 70-75 launches, and a few from other programs, as well. That’s what the Soviets would launch in a year and a half back in the space race. At the same time, there are more launches now coming down. And what we’ve seen, already, they’re ramping up.
With Shenzhou, at first we thought that after the first flight, they would begin a Gemini-like program of flying every several months, every three or four or six months. They decided they’re not going to fly even this calendar year at all, and fly the next Shenzhou mission next year.
But clearly they fly a mission once, learn from it, and don’t keep repeating it. The next mission is two people for a week in space. That’s pretty much now the official comment. The mission beyond that would involve a space walk with space suits to go outside, and some testing of rendezvous and docking, the technology they need for a space station. They’ve said that their approach is different than the West, than the U.S. and the Soviets did; they will launch into orbit, detach the forward nose section of their spacecraft, back away and re-dock with it several times. So they only have to launch one vehicle, instead of two, to practice this rendezvous and docking. That’s entirely plausible. It would leave them in a position, after only four or five flights over the next three or four years, to begin use of what they say is their next step, which are short-term space laboratories that would be visited by crews. After that comes the time to get their large vehicle up, their Mir- class vehicle. They said that will take awhile before they’re ready for it. And, sure enough, it’s also going to be awhile before the launch vehicle is ready.
So they’ve discussed in public what is converging on a description of a plan with Shenzhou that is going to put them into essentially a Russian-level capability within a couple of years, beyond anyone else’s. And is Shenzhou really Chinese -- not for “Magic Vessel,” which is the word for it -- it might be the Chinese for “Constellation”. There’s a spacecraft that NASA would like to build sometime in the next ten years that will probably look a lot like the spacecraft the Chinese are now flying.
Senator Brownback: Astronaut Bill Nelson?
Senator Nelson: Is that spacecraft the crew-exploration vehicle?
Mr. Oberg: I’m referring to the current -- that’s the current acronym for it. I wouldn’t want to guarantee how long that will be the name.
Senator Nelson: And does it look like that?
Mr. Oberg: It looks a lot like -- we don’t know, there are three or four different drawings I’ve seen. The Shenzhou followed a procedure that the Chinese learned from their own experience and ours, you develop a spacecraft based upon the mission requirement. You don’t build a spacecraft to please aesthetics or Hollywood or different contractors, or even -- pardon me -- you know, different politicians. You build it based on the requirement. And the Shenzhou appears to do that. Whether we’re going to be smart enough to copy the Chinese
philosophy or not, I’m not yet sure.
Dr. Logsdon: Well, but this time NASA, at least on paper, claims it’s doing it right, setting out the requirements for the spacecraft first and then designing to that requirement. Those requirements are not set, so what the spacecraft is going to look like at this point, in April of 2004, is only speculation.
Senator Nelson: The slower approach was announced before the little rover discovered that there was a sea on Mars, and so I’m just asking “What if?” What if, by ‘07 and ’09 and ‘11, we suddenly find that there were forms of life on and have a human dig around and try to find out what was there?
Ms. Smith: It may depend largely on how much risk everyone is willing to take, because you may not have the knowledge that you need at that point as to what the effects are on people when they journey that long in weightlessness and how they’re going to react when they’re on the surface of Mars, which is a third G. You may not have the radiation studies completed that you want to have completed. So it’ll probably boil down to risk and money.
Mr. Oberg: But this is also what ISS has been teaching us in this past experience, and proving its value in that ISS has taught us that we’re not smart enough to build a spacecraft yet that can spend three years without resupply and without fresh spare parts showing up. The experience of ISS is that we need to practice better in low-Earth orbit and potentially also in the area around the moon (or maybe not), but at least to practice before we commit to the long flights to Mars. Or else we’re going to have to expect losses -- not something you can do with high-level losses, because the support will be gone. So that when you leave
for Mars, you’re going to have to be, like what the Chinese launched, Shenzhou 5. They methodically did intermediate steps, checked them out thoroughly, took longer than other
people thought, but may have been just cautious enough to make the flight of Shenzhou 5 successful.
On Station, as you’ve been aware, there have been a number of problems. Equipment’s broken down faster than it was expected to. Also, without being repaired with Shuttle
missions, there are a number of other systems which are right now teetering on the brink. There are backups, because of the multinational nature of it. Some systems
that we have that won’t work, the Russians will step in, and vice versa.
There, I think we do see the strength of an international partnership, where there are complementary capabilities that each country contributes, as opposed to one vehicle built of
pieces from all the different countries.
So if we go international, I think one thing to enhance the reliability of an interplanetary flight is having at least two different teams -- perhaps a U.S., with its partners’ teams, the Chinese with their partners’ teams -- being able to send crewed human vehicles. Perhaps a fleet, perhaps two vehicles going together, standing by to help each other out, might greatly enhance the chance of the crew getting back. And it wouldn’t take a whole lot longer or cost a lot more, because with international cooperation, we’ve found out that it never saves you money.
Mr. Grahn: May I add just a reflection? Well, it sounds interesting and good with a vehicle that can do a lot of things, but it reminds me of a Swiss Army knife -- each blade can be used, but no blade is any good.
Mr. Oberg: But because this vehicle, exploration vehicle, is apparently expendable, or at least fewer re-uses -- we can do as the Soviets did. Develop several different evolutionary paths with the same basic airframe, with major commonality between different vehicles, but more specialized toward the specific mission plan for that particular kind of a vehicle. So we’re not going to build a vehicle that can do everything. We’re going to have a design that, with modifications and additional equipment, can do one or the other, or a third option.
I would like to have thought -- and, Senator Nelson, I was feeling very much like you, a Martian for many years -- that we should go to Mars quickly, take the bit in our teeth and go out there. Watch the experience on the Space Station and experience that the Russians have had. As good as they were with Mir, keeping it going, they kept it going only because of resupply from the ground. Parts would break that were not predicted to break. The Shuttle could bring things up that they couldn’t fit in their own cargo craft, and they kept Mir going, did a marvelous job.
If Mir had been sent toward Mars, the crew would have died. Not because of a fire or a collision or the other accidents, but because things broke down and they ran out of spare parts. We’re running of spare parts on ISS now. What spare parts to pack?
There may be things that we can do and practice around the moon that won’t delay getting to Mars at all, that we’d have to practice somewhere. It’s like a testing ground, and it’s like the testing ground that the Chinese find in space for their high technology.
Space is the ultimate judge. There’s no bluffing outer space. You can’t fool Mother Nature, as Dr. Feynman said.
And testing the techniques, technologies, required for interplanetary flight -- far harder than I know I thought ten years ago, and many others -- you need somewhere to try it out. The moon may be one area, other areas around the moon, the Lagrangian points that have been mentioned, and, as I mentioned, near-Earth asteroids, a very tempting target of high scientific value and intermediate challenge. Those are all out there as options, and NASA’s strategic planning is looking at these options, I think, in a very mature way.
But the options that we’re looking at for our purposes are not the same as the Chinese are looking at, and they would want to -- they may just look at what we’re doing, and pick and choose what they can do to make the most impressive point. Their intention is not to match us program by program by program. They’ve said that. Their intention is to find the project that we’re doing, find the one, the most spectacular one, that they can do first, perhaps, make the point, and perform that. And that is the kind of strategic thinking that can lead to, I think, very spectacular Chinese successes in the next five, ten, fifteen years.
Senator Nelson: Well, I would just say, in conclusion, Mr. Chairman, that one of the things that we have to worry about is whether or not we can get the money, and how do you translate the will of the people into votes. And right now that’s a very difficult thing to do.
It may well be -- and I’m sure the thought has occurred to you, Mr. Oberg -- that because the Chinese are headed to the moon, there might be some of this old Cold War competition that comes back into the factor of the politics that allows us then to translate the concern of that into dollars that’s allocated to the space program, but it’s too early to know. But that certainly is a possibility.
And when China orbited their astronaut, that was one of the first things that I thought of, it might be a help to us.
Mr. Oberg: It’s not a zero-sum game that -- the Chinese can succeed, can compete in a peaceful area. I think, looking historically at the space race, at the Soviet participation -- and I’d be happy for other comments here -- the Soviets found an area of competition in which they could make a contribution. They could impress the world and their own people in a beneficial kind of activity that judged how good they were, and rewarded them when they succeeded, and didn’t involve military or oppressive techniques. And as they earned more respect outside their own country, justified respect for their activities, in many ways this, I think, softened the xenophobia and the garrison mentality that they had from Stalinist days. They were happening anyway.
Perhaps these are coincidental. But success in space strikes me -- each country’s success is the success of the whole world, and they build on each other.
We can look at a case in the future, when the Chinese are going to be building things in space. We’re going to realize we should be matching them because it’s a new arena. Leaving it to them and other nations is not going to be good for practical terms or psychological terms for the United States.
We’re never going to dominate entirely again, but -- and we’re never going to have one unified world program, but a mix, a balance of different approaches, based on past experience and a good view of the history, I think, can benefit everyone.
Dr. Logsdon: Think of yourself as a politician in 2020. If China’s on the moon -- India is headed in that direction, maybe Japan, maybe Europe as a partner with one or more of them -- and the U.S. has chosen not to go, is that a politically acceptable position to leave to your successors?
Senator Nelson: The answer to that is no. And at that point, if the route is through the moon, I hope we’re on the moon, getting ready to go to Mars.
Dr. Logsdon: Indeed.
Senator Brownback: Let me -- Mr. Oberg -- thanks, Bill, for being here -- let me pursue this idea, because I had not thought about that, about China going to a near-Earth object, instead of back to the moon, and that’s a great – and they would land a craft on --
Mr. Oberg: -- a manned craft, and run some robots on it, get some samples. As we all realize, we have profound interest in the structure of Earth-crossing asteroids, because at some point, if not this year or even this century, we’re going to have to go and interfere in the course of some of these. And we’d need the preparation of what do they do when you -- how do they respond to us pushing them? We can get that from unmanned vehicles, as well as manned vehicles. But often, because of the fast approach and that they’re only nearby for a little while, a manned vehicle could well be the most efficient scientific technique.
Senator Brownback: By what time would they have the capacity to be able to do that on the development approach that they’re in now?
Mr. Oberg: If we’re looking at being able to send a Shenzhou-type spacecraft and a mission module of about the same mass that could keep them alive for several months, we’re talking about several launches of this CZ-5-500 new booster, which could be online and ready by the beginning of the next decade. If they wanted to make that dash, try some practices, even send a crew out a million miles and back as a sortie into interplanetary space, with the intention of, not being a stunt, but being pioneers on plans they would like to see done, I think that would be tremendously respected by, and impressive to, the rest of the world. And then later on, when there is an asteroid they might want to visit, they would have to send an additional mission module, a housing module with equipment. That could come later.
Dr. Logsdon: You know, one question to which I do not have the answer is when a suitable body will be in the proximate vicinity of the Earth system that is a target for landing.
Mr. Oberg: They tend to be -- we’re finding enough now, at least every year or two, if not more frequently. Some require longer voyages than others. Some are quite convenient; you can make a voyage out and back in a few months. Others require almost 12 months in flight, which is much too long for initial flights. And the initial flight might just be a flight out beyond the Earth-Moon system, test navigation in interplanetary space, and return to Earth, just as a sortie.
The first sortie out beyond the Moon would almost pull the rug out for any value -- well, it would make going back to the Moon look almost pedestrian in comparison, but it would be easier than going back to the Moon. And that strikes me as an attractive kind of strategy. Maybe we shouldn’t have publish it.
Senator Brownback: Let me ask about Chinese/Russian cooperation in future space exploration programs. One of you presented about the great legacy of the Russian programs -- I think, Ms. Smith, that you did -- talking about length of time, space stations, the number of firsts that the Soviet program had in the legacy of Russian, and that one of you had mentioned, as well, that the Chinese space suit looks a lot like the Russian space suit adopted here. What about the likelihood of a Russian/Chinese participation, joint venture, on an international space effort to a near-Earth object, Moon? Are any of these things being -- do we know if these sort of things are being discussed?
Mr. Oberg: There’s been no explicit reference to a near- Earth object mission that I’ve seen in the Russian or Chinese literature. The Chinese literature on lunar flight looks to me to be extremely derivative of the Western reports on it, but they have talked very ambitiously about Chinese and Russian extended cooperation qn other missions. So they clearly do like to cooperate.
The Russians will sell China what it wants. The Chinese won’t always buy it, because they can’t afford it. But for future missions it’s certainly very plausible.
In terms of -- we’re speculating on things that the Chinese could find useful and attractive, I have not seen any explicit reference in their literature toward anything but lunar flight, and even lunar landing. But the lunar- landing discussions strike me to be entirely derived from reading Western reports, not any of their own native research.
Senator Brownback: What if there is a Chinese/Russian partnership on going to the Moon? Doesn’t that move forward the Chinese ability to do this quite a substantial amount, given the Russian knowledge?
Mr. Oberg: I think the prime Russian motivation for space cooperation has got to be cash flow. And as Marcia Smith has said, they receive a substantial amount -- I believe the figure is almost half of their budget -- from Western sales. They probably will keep to the concept of “dance with the guy what brung ‘em” when it comes to where their program is centered. The Chinese don’t have anywhere near that much money. And while the Russians still need that flow, they’ll probably stick with their current partners for that very reason. But there’s no -- but other partners, other partnerships1 can be formed.
The Chinese clearly want to partner with other countries. They partner with Brazil on Earth resources, they partner with ESA on science satellites, including one that was launched a few days ago. They want to partner more with Japan, with South Africa on software. The only country they haven’t really discussed wanting to partner with much is the U.S., and they’re still feeling, I think, that the termination of their satellite launch services, commercial and satellite -- they no longer launch satellites for money, and it’s primarily because of ITAR, primarily because of U.S. policy.
Dr. Logsdon: Yeah, I would add that Russia’s potential primary partner for cooperation is Europe. That’s lots of back and forth between Europe and Russia on future plans. After all, Europe is financing the creation of a Russian -- of a launch site for the Soyuz vehicle in the European launch site in South America, which will give Europe, using Russian hardware, independent access for people to space sometime in the next four or five years. So there’s a lot of interaction there; I think much more than a Moscow/Beijing axis emerging.
Mr. Oberg: And Russia has the hardware to do these missions. If they had the financing, they could be a third party to go beyond low-Earth orbit. They always wanted to. They have the -- they could turn their hardware toward it, but it would take funding levels far beyond what they have available now.
Senator Brownback: Accidents happen. The Soyuz has had a very reliable history. But something could happen with the Soyuz. Suppose our relationship with Russia changes? We’ve put all of our eggs in the Russian basket, basically, for that four- year period. Now --
Ms. Smith: It’s a very different manner of operating than we’re accustomed to. It may be a perfectly fine way of operating, but it is very different from what we’re --
Mr. Oberg: We have actually done that before. Even though Congress told NASA not to put Russia in the critical path of the Space Station, NASA disobeyed that willfully and put them in the critical path of the Space Station. And we paid the price for that in delays and extra costs, but we are to the point, and especially now, dependent on Russian goodwill. And it turns out we banked a lot of it by being good to them during Shuttle/Mir. And I think it’s more reliable now than -- I’ll tell you, than I forecast that it would be.
Senator Brownback: Because we’ve had this dual relationship, these dual --
Mr. Oberg: We’ve had this dual back and forth.
Senator Brownback: -- systems, that we’ve --
Mr. Oberg: Dual systems.
Senator Brownback: -- been able to go up.
Mr. Oberg: Each were there when the other wasn’t.
Senator Brownback: You know, I’ve got to say to all of you, you guys are great observers of this and have a historical perspective that I don’t, although I’ve been fascinated by this for years. But many of my years, I was sitting on a tractor in Kansas being fascinated by it, so I didn’t get to have this perspective that you’re giving me here today. I just don’t pick up the enthusiasm in the Congress for continuing the Shuttle a whole lot longer, other than if you were a contractor state; then there s enthusiasm that’s based upon something we all understand -- jobs in the particular state. But outside of that, just as far as enthusiasm -- this is the right way to go, this is the place for us to spend $5 billion a year -- no. And it’s kind of -- you know, it’s kind of, “Why? Why are we doing this?” But you do sense that, “Yes, we want to continue manned spaceflight. We’re not pulling out of this. This is something we should do.”
It has enormous psychological value, if you can’t put a price on it. It has an enormous value to the atmosphere of the country. Either way, if you’re there or if you’re not there, it has enormous consequences of it.