Status Report

Prepared Statement by Joan Johnson-Freese: “Human Space Flight – The Space Shuttle and Beyond”

By SpaceRef Editor
May 18, 2005
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The Testimony of Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese Chair, Department of National Security Studies, Naval War College

Testimony of Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese

May 18, 2005

The Strategic Environment of Human Spaceflight

Last week, I challenged my class of 78 college students to, first, name three of the Apollo astronauts, then, three current astronauts. Some could name three Apollo astronauts, none could name three current astronauts, or even one. The Apollo program represents a glorious part of American history. Neil Armstrong stepping off planet Earth and onto another celestial body was both a shining moment for Americans, and a spiritual moment for all mankind. America held the attention and admiration of the world because it dared to venture into the Heavens. But too often America is a crisis-response society. Politically motivated to go to the Moon by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, in less than a decade the United States was successful beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

Unfortunately, however, we did not choose to stay or to continue the journey. Instead, we came home and spaceflight has since been confined to the celestial driveway. Now, except for a few die-hards, the American public shows more interest in its space museums than space exploration. But, I will suggest, allowing even the perception of U.S. leadership in human space to slip has negative strategic implications for the United States. Americans take great pride in space achievements. Even at the height of the Apollo era though, opinion polls showed that the public sees space exploration as a good thing to do, but expendable when prioritized against other demands for federal funding, like health care, education, schools and defense. Subsequently, the human space program has been struggling since Apollo to find a raison d’etre with both the public and politicians sufficient to carry human spaceflight out of the celestial driveway and into the street. The difference between Apollo and all subsequent human space visions has been the goals. Whereas Apollo had a strategic goal — “beat the Russians” — programs since have had science and exploration as their goals and unfortunately, these goals have not proven sufficient to be competitive with other demands for federal funds.

While many countries have shown interest over the years in developing autonomous human space programs, besides the United States only Russia and China, as of the October 2003 launch of the first Chinese taikonaut, have been successful. The Russian human space program was rescued from becoming moribund when it merged with NASA’s human program to develop the International Space Station (ISS). Russia is still, however, unable to pursue new high-cost initiatives on its own, due to both economics and because they have learned that developing and maintaining support for a human space program is hard in democracies. While the European Space Agency (ESA) and countries like Japan and India likely have the technical wherewithal to have a successful human space program, they lack the requisite political will. In a Catch-22 scenario, however, having to always play a supporting role to the United States makes it even more difficult to garner public support and political will for human space activity. While Japan has long talked about a human space program, being responsible to an electorate, bureaucratic politics, economics and a cultural adversity to risk will likely keep them Earthbound. India too, as a democracy, remains constrained by public perceptions of priorities lying elsewhere. It is only because China’s program is driven from the top that it has successfully been carried to fruition. So why is China, a country with 1.3+ billion people, willing to devote significant resources to human spaceflight capability?

The Apollo program demonstrated the benefits that accrue to a nation able to claim a human spaceflight capability. In the movie Apollo 13 Tom Hanks shows a Congressional delegation around Kennedy Space Center pointing out constituent jobs in high tech fields that were politically distributed to all fifty states. Jobs are always a valued program benefit. Americans expressed interest in science and technology education unmatched either before or after Apollo. Technology developed for space translated into economic development. Dual-use technology with both civil and military applications was developed. And finally, America enjoyed the prestige of “winning” the space race against the Soviet Union, which translated into a unifying pride during the contentious Viet Nam War era, and also drew Third World countries to our side during the Cold War when East-West blocks competed for support.

Those same benefits, jobs, education, economic development, dual-use technology and prestige are still motivating factors for space activity. Since the 1950’s, Europe has pursued space under the premise that space activity generated technology, technology generated industry, and industry led to economic development. China learned from the Apollo playbook as well. Training and employing workers in high-technology aerospace jobs in China keeps large numbers of people employed, which is a Chinese priority. It also demonstrates to the world that China is able to, as one Chinese commentator put it, “make more than shoes,” thereby supporting their overarching economic development goal by attracting global industries to China. China is also experiencing growth in science and engineering education programs at unprecedented levels. China is clearly interested in modernizing its military, and, again learning from the U.S. playbook, China has seen the benefits space can yield in force enhancement capabilities. And finally, there is prestige. Prestige takes on two dimensions for China: first, domestically it bestows credibility on the Communist government much in the same way bringing the Olympics to Beijing does. In regional and international terms, prestige translates into techno-nationalism, where perceived technical prowess is equated to regional power. This is particularly important to China, which has been working hard and been largely successful at using economics and soft power to transform its regional image from that of the bully, to a rising power that countries can work with. For countries like Japan and India, these perceptions are important. Speculation about an Asian space race floats on the wind, but it is unlikely. After the Shenzhou V launch in October 2003, the Indian science community claimed it too could have accomplished such an achievement, but had simply chosen not to. That response was intended to quell concerns from both the Indian public and politicians about China’s technical prowess compared to India’s – techno-nationalism. Initial Japanese responses to the launch varied. Space officials downplayed the technical significance of the event, while nonetheless congratulating China. A Japanese official spoke to the media directly in geostrategic terms. “Japan is likely to be the one to take the severest blow from the Chinese success. A country capable of launching any time will have a large influence in terms of diplomacy at the United Nations and military affairs. Moves to buy products from a country succeeding in human space flight may occur.” One woman on the street was quoted in Japanese media coverage as saying, “It’s unbelievable. Japan lost in this field.” While Japan’s “losing” to China through the Shenzhou V launch was more perception than reality, China’s success juxtaposed against power failures on both the Japanese environmental satellite Midori-2 and on its first Mars probe, Nozomi, as well as the November 2003 launch failure of two Information Gathering Satellites (IGS), resulted in calls for a reexamination of the Japanese program. However, because of the problems initiating and sustaining human space programs in democracies, combined with unique internal politics in both countries, the initiation of an autonomous human program in either Japan or India is unlikely.

With China’s entry into the exclusive human spaceflight club, the strategic gameboard was put in motion. Whereas the United States has pursued of path of simultaneously cooperation and competition with other countries in various aspects of space, such as cooperating with Europe on ISS but competing in the commercial launch field, with China the U.S. approach has been purely competitive. China has been excluded from partnership on the International Space Station, for many years their “brass ring.” The reasoning for the U.S. purely competitive approach has been technical and political: seeking to stop China from acquiring sensitive dual use technology, concern that China will be the next U.S. peer competitor, and not wanting to support the largest remaining Communist government in the world, especially one charged with human rights abuses and other practices averse to democratic principles. While such an approach may be virtuous, realities are such that it increasingly appears counterproductive.

We have to face an uncomfortable fact here: a country whose interests may very well some day conflict with our own is going to pursue a line of technological development that could enhance its ability to challenge us through multiple venues. And they are going to be aided in this by other countries, whether we like it or not. While the U.S. seeks to contain China, much of the rest of the world is eager to work with China, thereby negating much of the impact the United States is trying to achieve, and indirectly encouraging activities not necessarily in the interest of the U.S. Other countries, allies, have often held passive-aggressive feelings toward space partnerships with the U.S.: welcoming and grateful for the opportunities, while resenting being inherently consigned to a supporting role, and feeling that U.S. partners are often treated more as secondary participants or sub-contractors on projects. Working with China gives them a chance to level the playing field.

There is a fairly widespread perception among the U.S. and international media, and a disconcerting number of the American public, that a human space race between China and the U.S. is either already underway or inevitable. China’s one human launch into space clearly demonstrated the maturity of Chinese space engineering. Successfully launching a rocket is not, however, a scientific breakthrough – the know-how has been in textbooks for more than fifty years. It does demonstrate the careful attention to literally thousands of minute engineering details. But by no means has China leapfrogged over U.S. capabilities.

China has ambitious human space goals, but a modest, incremental implementation plan. Officially, their current human program is a three part plan: man in space, a space laboratory, and a space station. Beyond that, their ambitions for the Moon and Mars are facing the same funding and political hurdles as NASA faces in the U.S.. In a November 21, 2004 press conference Ouyang Ziyuan, the lead scientist of their lunar program, talked about the costs and benefits of space, referencing the Apollo experience.

The lunar exploration project will spur high tech development, and I cannot calculate how much return there will be on that investment of 1.4 billion, but the Apollo project spurred the scientific, technical, economic military and other development of the 1960s, produced over 3000 new technologies of all types with applications useful in everyday life, and was not only responsible for America’s leading position in science and technology, but it produced enormous political and economic change.

It is estimated that for every dollar invested there was an economic return of 4-5 dollars. We learned a lot about the Moon, the Earth, the Sun that is impossible to calculate in dollar terms. From ancient times to the present China has had the legend of Chang E, and you could say that going to the Moon started with China, but to today we have still not left the Earth. The lunar exploration project will have an incalculably valuable effect on the ethnic spirit and motivation (of the Chinese people) and I ask you, how much is that worth?”

While having to justify expenditures, the Chinese will continue their quest for space as long as sufficient domestic and geostrategic benefits accrue, and they will solicit international partners.

China’s human spaceflight program was largely indigenously developed, but based on proven designs adapted to make them their own. They have openly stated their appreciation for the work of the former Soviet Union toward making their own human spaceflight program a success. China understands the benefits, fiscal, technical and political, of cooperation. In the same November 21, 2004 press report, Ouyang Ziyuan spoke about cooperation. “International cooperation (in space exploration) is a necessary development, no single country has the ability to complete (this undertaking) by itself. Landing on the Moon is an affair of the entire human race, and we should make our contribution on behalf of the Chinese race, fulfill the responsibility of the Chinese race. We want to learn together with others, not close ourselves off and go our own way.” A pragmatic move for the Chinese, there will interested takers to invitations for cooperation.

China has spent approximately $2.2 billion on its Shenzhou program, whereas NASA’s annual budget is in excess of $16 billion. Shenzhou V was launched in 2003; Shenzhou VI will likely be launched in 2005. From the Chinese perspective, there was no need to go any sooner, as China has been able to enjoy its new found status as the third country capable of human spaceflight, while improving its technical capabilities, and keeping spending to a manageable level. Nevertheless, China’s ability to successfully launch their first taikonaut while the U.S. Space Shuttle was grounded added to the perception of China’s technical prowess compared to the U.S., not an inconsequential or unrewarding benefit for the Chinese. If the Shuttle is still not flying next Fall when the Chinese launch again, the Chinese will reap further prestige and publicity at the expense of the U.S. The U.S. has historically been the reigning human space champion, but there is always interest – and even tacit support — when a spoiler overtakes, or even appears to overtake, a champion. The U.S. appears in, and to some losing, a human space race, because the U.S. has been unable to set and implement a realistic way forward, and because of U.S. political reluctance to use cooperation, historically shown successful, to co-opt and shape the Chinese space program as we have other programs. The Chinese are playing Tortoise to the U.S. Hare.

It has been suggested that engaging China in a space race would provide the political will for the U.S. human program to move forward, as the Soviet Union’s activities did for Apollo, or that it would trigger a spending spree in China with effects similar to those experienced by the Soviet Union trying to keep up with SDI. Both are flawed analogies. During the Cold War, two competing superpowers started from the same point technologically and engaged in an engineering race. Both were motivated to compete. Now, the Chinese have no reason to “race” the United States. Chinese spending will not increase to keep up or outpace the United States either, as they fully understand it is impossible. China needs only to incrementally continue their human space program to create the perception that it is “beating” the United States. China’s activities place the U.S. in a race against itself, to maintain its leadership.

Meanwhile, China will increasingly engage other countries in cooperative space activity. Technological containment of the U.S.S.R. took place in another time and under circumstances that are now impossible to replicate: there is no way to seal China off from the technologies it seeks. Our best hope, then, is to shape China’s future in space, rather than watch it develop in 20 years – with assistance from others—into something that we will wish we could have diverted.

China is already working with the European Space Agency on programs ranging from DoubleStar to Galileo, it worked with Russia on human spaceflight, and it is courting many Asian countries for projects involving cooperative work on environmental and disaster monitoring and management, sometimes through the Asia-Pacific Multilateral Cooperation in Space Organization (APSCO). That the EU considered dropping its arms embargo against China demonstrates that other countries do not necessarily share U.S. views about the value or necessity of isolating China. Over the long term, the reality is that China will increasingly engage partners in space activity. The question is whether the United States will choose to deflect or co-opt some of that cooperative activity in directions of our choosing?

The United States has historically and successfully employed cooperative space activities to “shape” other countries’ programs; guiding them into benign areas of interest and leaving them less funds to pursue activities less in our interest. Controlled or limited cooperation has also allowed the U.S. to get a much better idea of exactly what the priorities and capabilities are in other countries. Because China’s program is still largely opaque, isolating it will only limit our ability to monitor what they are doing, and perhaps even more important, their long-term intent. Technology transfer remains a critical issue. Given that stopping technology transfer to China is impossible because the U.S. does not have a technology monopoly, managing it through transfers from the U.S., rather than having China obtain it from other countries with lesser controls, becomes a pragmatic option. Further, cooperation with China on space offers the U.S. leverage in Chinese space activities, gets the U.S. out of a counterproductive perception of a space race, and offers the U.S. the opportunity to develop soft power through a human space program with a goal beyond science and exploration – strategic leadership. Cooperation in space with China does not excuse the Communist regime from its commitment to Communism and its abysmal record on human rights. But indeed it is because China is an authoritarian state at the crossroads of its political development that it becomes imperative that America, as the world’s leading democracy, step forward and help shape China’s aspirations in space toward peaceful and cooperative ends rather than see them turned toward more threatening ideological or military goals. It should also be pointed out that attempting to draw linkages between space cooperation and other foreign policy goals, like human rights, is unlikely to be successful. The U.S. tried with the Soviet Union and only became frustrated. The U.S. can use space cooperation to co-opt, or shape, Chinese space activity. That is a worthy goal in itself.

An inclusive cooperative human space program returns to the Apollo model, a program with a strategic goal, but this time based on cooperation rather than competition. Cooperation is not easy. But the ISS experience, and studies conducted by groups such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics with long experience in cooperation models tells us there are ways to manage the issues. A first step in any model is to assure that all partners have a vested interest in success, all partners fully understand their roles, and that the science and engineering goals are meaningful. We know how to do it.

Imagine if you will a few alternative, hypothetical scenarios. If the United States were to finish the ISS only to then turn it over to the partners so the U.S. could pursue the Moon/ Mars vision, but then got mired down in technical or political difficulties, which would not be hard to imagine, the U.S. could end up the only space-faring nation not involved in ISS. If the U.S. pursues the Moon/Mars vision with the ISS partners, but not China; it is China (the developing country) versus the rest of the (developed) world, magnifying the perceived importance of each small advancement China makes and every misstep we make. If the U.S. pursues the Moon/Mars mission alone – other countries could see working with China as an opportunity to work on a human space program, and on a more level playing field, creating a U.S. versus China+ scenario. And finally, some have suggested that the U.S. simply forego human space activity.

The U.S. must not, however, allow human space leadership to slip away. Human spaceflight requires pushing the envelop in areas of science and engineering – in medical fields and areas of life support systems engineering, for example — otherwise potentially neglected. While direct benefits to the economy or defense from a particular program may not always be identifiable in advance, GPS, once a government program without a clear mission, has certainly demonstrated that we should not be bound by the limits of our imagination. The importance that space provides to building science capabilities generally is not unnoticed elsewhere. China, for example, is acutely aware that it has a long way to go toward becoming a science “power” and it hopes human spaceflight will accelerate its movement up the learning curve. For the U.S. to maintain its leadership position, it is therefore imperative that the U.S. stays active in space as well. It is also important to remember that human spaceflight is part of the U.S. space agenda, not the entire agenda. We need to maintain a balance in the U.S. to assure continued preeminence in all aspects of science and engineering. And finally, space represents the future. It is imperative that the United States, as the world’s leader, remain the world’s leader into the future.

Finally, I encourage this committee to look into and plan for the future of human spaceflight from an “effects-based” perspective. What does the U.S. hope to achieve? Is the U.S. looking to maintain its preeminence in human spaceflight? I suggest we must. If that is the goal, realistically, we need a rationale beyond science and exploration to sustain the momentum. Competition once served that purpose but will not any longer. Indeed competition places the U.S. into a race not in its best interests. Strategic leadership of a cooperative space mission off planet Earth offers the U.S. a viable way forward toward maintaining U.S. leadership while generating significant soft power globally, soft power necessary toward such strategic goals as effectively fighting the Global War on Terrorism. I encourage this committee to look at space from a strategic perspective, not just from a science or exploration perspective.

SpaceRef staff editor.