October 16, 2003 -- On October 15, 2003, China joined the United States and Russia as a country capable of putting humans in space. The launch of that country's "taikonaut," Yang Liwei, harkened back to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, and 1961 launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first man into space—both ahead of the United States. Those events spurred America into a space race with the Russians that led to its historic lunar landings. Today, the U.S.
The Chinese people are understandably thrilled about their government placing a man in orbit. Space travel is a symbol of modernity at its best. For many years, China has used its Long March rockets to place commercial payloads in orbit, including American-manufactured satellites. Now that it has achieved the more difficult feat of placing a human in space, it has the prestige of playing in the big leagues with the United States and Russia. But China's newfound prestige in part reflects the failures of America's space program.
Consider the fact that most developing countries have national airlines that consist of a few infrequently flown secondhand planes, with the national flag painted on the fuselage, that provide poor service and lose money. Americans don't notice those airlines because each year we make over 600 million trips by private commercial airlines and some 4,000 American planes fly on any given day. While China's space achievement should not be minimized, imagine what the American reaction would have been if today there were thousands of Americans working in orbiting private labs or commercial factories, vacationing in orbiting hotels and recreation centers, or doing research on permanent lunar bases. The Chinese launch no doubt would be celebrated, but Americans would not feel threatened by the launch nor see the need for a new space race. Yet this vision of thriving space enterprise still lies in our future.
After the American Moon landings, rather than backing out of civilian space efforts and contracting out for services with the private sector, NASA went from science and exploration to freight hauling. It developed a shuttle that, rather than bring launch costs down, caused them to skyrocket. It planned a space station that was to cost $8 billion, accommodate a crew of twelve, and be completed in the early 1990s. Instead, it is still under construction, could cost as much as $100 billion, and houses only three astronauts safely. Thus, the Chinese achievement reminds us of three decades of lost opportunities.
In the current context, with the accident-prone shuttles grounded, some Americans see communist China, with its new space capacity, as our major security threat, taking the place of the old Soviet Union. Yet it is not the capacity to put humans in space but, rather, the power to launch nuclear weapons on intercontinental missiles and to orbit satellites for communications, remote sensing, and global positioning that most contribute to military prowess.
Still, China's Long March rockets cost a fraction of the construction and launch costs of the America shuttle. Further, China's unique manned mission design leaves in orbit a module with every flight, relying on a separate reentry vehicle to return taikonauts back to Earth. Those orbital modules no doubt will be components of a Chinese space station that could cost a fraction of the price tag for the American one. If NASA's high costs continue to price America out of outer space, and if in the long run China has more humans permanently living and working in space, then China could adversely influence the nature of the commercial and even security regime that emerges in orbit.
Since NASA already is considering major changes in light of the Columbia disaster, the Chinese launch should spur it to real innovation. It should phase out its flights to orbit and instead contract out for rides on private rockets. It should place space station management and expansion in private hands. And if it needs transitional vehicles, it should look to private suppliers for versatile systems that can serve commercial purposes.
Further, the U.S. government should remove current barriers to private commercial space companies. For example, the Commercial Space Transportation office in the Federal Aviation Administration was created to speed up the licensing process for private rocket launches. But other parties within the FAA want to classify many suborbital rockets as "experimental aircraft," which would foist enough new regulations on emerging private launch companies to kill them in the crib. And in 1999, export licensing was moved from the Commerce Department, which did a tolerable job of facilitating private American multinational space activities, to the State Department, which does a terrible one, again chaining American entrepreneurs to the ground.
American entrepreneurs can beat any government provider—whether Chinese or American—in producing cutting-edge goods and services. Rather than launching a new government-lead space race, the U.S. government should unleash its private innovators who will help make us a true, space-faring civilization.