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Author: Cody (Page 1 of 52)


Two SLS to Jupiter: The Motivations and Ramifications of the Europa Mission’s Launch Vehicle Mandate

Europa, the icy Jovian moon with a subsurface liquid water ocean heated by tidal forces, presents a tremendous opportunity for scientific exploration and offers tantalizing possibilities for the search for extraterrestrial life. Despite the stark warning issued in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two to “attempt no landing there,” NASA has been working on a dedicated mission to Europa, which now involves a lander, for more than three years.

This mission’s profile has undergone considerable evolution since Congress first allocated money in 2013 to finance it, including a policy mandate to utilize the heavy-lift Space Launch System for launch.

The SLS Mandate

Early Europa plans called for an orbiter which would conduct surveys while making multiple flybys of the moon. Project officials were exploring potential options for launch aboard a variety of rockets. Then, the 2016 Consolidated Appropriation Act, the omnibus spending bill that funded the federal government for the current fiscal year, specified that the mission must “include an orbiter with a lander that will include competitively selected instruments.” Moreover, the act stated that NASA must “use the Space Launch System as the launch vehicle for the Jupiter Europa mission.”

Following this mandate, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed concern that NASA, directed to include a lander in the mission, did not have the resources to meet its target 2022 launch date.

In response, the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice, and science spending bill for fiscal year 2017 splits the mission through two launches: the orbiter in 2022 and the lander in 2024. According to the bill’s draft report, NASA will need to “ensure that future funding requests are consistent with achieving a Europa Orbiter launch no later than 2022 and a Europa Lander launch no later than 2024, pending final mission configuration.” NASA will also need to “submit long-term plans for maximizing the use of the SLS. NASA shall include the Europa Orbiter and Lander missions in this plan.”

Though significant changes to this policy could occur as the fiscal year 2017 appropriations process continues, the possibility that two SLS launches will take place to support the Europa mission now appears likely.

This mission is unique in being one of the very few NASA science missions, if not the only, to have a launch vehicle selected through Congressional mandate. What factor—scientific, technical, and political—influenced this policy decision? What are some potential financial and programmatic ramifications of this launch mandate?

Scientific and Technical Motivations

Though political motivations surely influence policymakers to find missions for the Space Launch System, scientific and technical considerations have been among the leading justifications issued for its use in the Europa mission.

John Grunsfeld, who recently retired as NASA’s associate administrator for science, said in a 2014 NASA SLS article that “the potential use of SLS for science will further enhance the synergy between scientific exploration and human exploration… SLS has the promise of enabling transformational science in our exploration of the solar system and cosmos.” Steve Creech, the Assistant Program Manager for Strategy and Partnerships for SLS, argued that “for missions to the outer planets… SLS could make it possible to do things that are currently impossible, such as sending larger scientific spacecraft with more instruments to far off destinations with reduced transit times.” NASA Advanced Concepts Office Manager Reggie Alexander mirrored that view, saying that “the Space Launch System could be really game-changing for space science. For some missions, it makes it much easier and quicker to carry them out.”

A Boeing study, presented at the 46th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in 2015, concluded that “SLS performance enables larger payloads and faster travel times with reduced operational complexity when compared to original concept studies.” With regard to the Europa mission in particular, the SLS provides “sufficient launch mass margin allowing for increased radiation shielding mass as well as expansion of the science payload.”

According to the study, use of the SLS instead of an Atlas V would allow for a direct ballistic approach instead of a Venus-Earth-Earth gravity assist, shortening transit time to Jupiter by more than four years.

There is benefit in an increased mass margin and shortened transit time to Jupiter. It makes possible a larger scientific payload aboard the mission’s spacecraft. The possibility for increased radiation shielding is also attractive; the harsh radiation environment around Jupiter is challenging for scientists working on the instruments that must survive it, and has been listed as among the mission’s top risks.

Shortened transit time reduces the costs, however marginal they may be, of funding and sustaining the mission’s science and support teams as well as support infrastructure during flight enroute to Jupiter. To that, Grunsfeld has said that “this is one of those rare cases where time really is money… in that extra cruise time, we have to maintain an engineering team and a science team and a spacecraft while it’s in cruise, even if we hibernate.”

Eliminating the need for gravity assist reduces flight risk and the mission’s complexity—and, accordingly, the effort and resources necessary for planning and executing such maneuvers. Finally, a shortened transit time more readily satisfies basic human nature: scientists, policymakers, space enthusiasts, and the general public would like to see discoveries and results sooner rather than later. The earlier the Europa mission can return valuable data, the sooner scientists can analyze and draw conclusions from it. NASA, mission planners, and Congress can develop follow-on missions sooner, and the public will feel they’ve gained a return on investment into their civil space program.

Political Motivations

Yet, while these scientific and technical justifications would’ve undoubtedly come into consideration had the choice of launch vehicle been NASA’s to make, the decision to use SLS was congressional. The SLS launch mandate is an inherently political decision.

Indeed, the Europa effort as a whole has been stimulated primarily by political pressure. While NASA has only tepidly sought funds for the mission, requesting $45 million in Europa funding between fiscal years 2013 and 2016, Congress has significantly increased funding for it, appropriating $395 million through those years. The draft fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill in the House proposes $260 million for Europa mission planning and development, though NASA’s request was only $49.6 million.

This Congressional pressure is due largely to the efforts of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice, and science (CJS) subcommittee and a staunch advocate of a Europa mission. Culberson, a vocal supporter of NASA’s planetary science effort and associated search for extraterrestrial life, believes that “the first place we will discover life on another world is Europa. It will be discovered in the oceans of Europa.” Europa, in his view, “had no advocate, until now,” and with him at the helm of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, Congress has allocated additional funding directed at a dedicated mission. Culberson believes such an effort “needs to be a flagship mission. The biggest and best we’ve ever flown.”

Notably, Culberson has said that “we will need the heavy lift capability of the [Space Launch System] rocket for all of those [outer planet] missions.”

The Space Launch System’s development was mandated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010, which states that it is “policy of the United States that NASA develop a Space Launch System as a follow-on to the Space Shuttle that can access cis-lunar space and the regions of space beyond Low-Earth orbit.”

The rocket is a centerpiece of NASA’s strategy for a campaign of crewed Mars missions, advertised as the “Journey to Mars.” This campaign has political buy-in, with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 declaring that a “long term objective for human exploration of space should be the eventual international exploration of Mars,” and the National Space Policy of 2010 calling for NASA to “begin crewed missions beyond the moon, including sending humans to an asteroid” and “by the mid-2030s, send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.”

While NASA has made considerable progress on SLS since 2010, significant concerns still abound regarding the vehicle’s launch cadence. According to Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, the SLS will need to “launch at least once per year, as a ‘necessary’ requirement.” Dr. Steve Squyres, former chair of the NASA Advisory Council, suggested in a 2014 NAC meeting that a Mars campaign would fall apart if the “flight cadence becomes alarmingly slow.” A 2014 National Academies Press report concluded that SLS “flight rates that are too far below historic norms will not be sustainable over the course of an exploration pathway that spans decades.”

The first SLS launch—EM-1, which will lob an uncrewed Orion capsule to orbit around the Moon—is on track to occur in 2018. The following mission – the crewed EM-2 flight – has a “no later than 2023” launch date assigned to it, with the expectation that it will launch in the 2021–2023 timeframe. This leaves a gap of three to five years between the first and second SLS flights, a far cry from the “necessary requirement” of a SLS launch at least once a year.

In light of these converging factors—NASA’s inability to meet a 2022 launch date for a combined Europa orbiter and lander, reasonable scientific and technical arguments for launch aboard the SLS, and unsettled concerns about the SLS’s short-term launch cadence—Congress is contemplating splitting the mission into two launches. Assuming that EM-2 flies in 2021 or 2023, the 2022 and 2024 Europa mission launches would satisfy the “necessary requirement” of one SLS flight per year.

If such is the case, SLS’s backers in the political arena could find reason to sustain their support for and financing of the program, NASA could answer critics’ concerns about the rocket’s launch cadence, and the “Journey to Mars” could have one of its architecture uncertainties crossed off the list, at least for the short term.

Hence, the unorthodox decision to Congressionally mandate a particular launch vehicle for a NASA science mission.


The SLS mandate and the potential for two launches are not insignificant, with multiple programmatic and financial ramifications emerging as a result.

These could complicate the mission planning effort, risking schedule slippage and possible cost overruns, as launch vehicle compatibility influences and impacts spacecraft design. In March 2018, when the Europa project holds its planned preliminary design review—the point when projects tend to select a launch vehicle—the SLS will still be in development. NASA officials “have said they would be willing to delay launch vehicle selection and maintain spacecraft compatibility with both launch vehicle options [SLS and Atlas V] for 8 months until the SLS’s committed launch readiness date of November 2018.”

At the time the 2016 Consolidated Appropriation Act’s became law, the Europa mission team had made significant progress in developing the orbiter’s mission profile and had selected nine scientific instruments for the spacecraft. According to the aforementioned GAO report, the addition of a lander and the SLS launch mandate requires NASA to revise those plans. Project officials have stated that a lander will increase the mission’s costs and development schedule. The effect of this addition will soon be known, as the project plans to enter the preliminary design and technology completion phase—at which point a range of expected costs and schedule will be established—this month.

As previously mentioned, launch aboard the SLS, especially aboard two SLS vehicles, presents possibilities for mission planners. The SLS’s greater capability compared to an Atlas V allows for increased radiation shielding aboard both the orbiter and the lander, something that, at the time of the GAO report, NASA was considering. With room on each SLS for additional payload mass, project officials can consider extending the scientific scope and scale of the mission. Of course, an expanded scientific payload is contingent upon mission funding.

This issue of funding, especially in light of the SLS mandate, is crucial. The likely cost of the mission, not including launch, has been estimated by various sources in the range of $2–3 billion. The GAO suggested the mission could cost upwards of $3–4 billion. The draft CJS 2017 appropriations bill specifies that NASA’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal provide a five-year funding profile to support the mission and its two launches.

To meet the targeted 2022 and 2024 launch dates, the Europa mission might crowd out funding for other planetary and Earth science programs. Such concerns were raised during the drafting of the 2016 spending bill, with Shaun Donovan, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, writing that “while directing an impractical level of funding toward the Jupiter Europa mission, the bill cuts important NASA Science programs by more than $200 million compared to the President’s Budget.” (See “What price Europa?”, The Space Review, June 1, 2015)

NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request included similar concerns. It featured a funding profile supporting a 2022 launch that would require spending $194 million in 2017, increasing to $678 million a year by 2020. Still, the request stated that “acceleration of the launch to 2022 is not recommended, given potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio.” And, as David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, noted, that funding profile didn’t include a lander since its cost is still being evaluated.

Meeting the targeted launch dates while satisfying that congressional mandate will require Congress to substantially increase the planetary science budget over the coming years, lest NASA’s broader mission portfolio be jeopardized. This will depend, though, on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) accepting the new plan and allowing NASA to sign multi-year contracts with its vendors. So far, OMB has been hesitant to prioritize the planetary science budget so as to accommodate the Europa mission.

Then comes the issue of financing the SLS launch. Each SLS launch will cost, as a conservative estimate, between $500 million and $1 billion, if not more, on top of the mission’s other costs.

Either Congress will substantially increase NASA’s budget to finance the construction and launch of these SLS vehicles, or the launches will require NASA to reallocate significant funds from other parts of its budget. To assume the former is, considering the precedent of historical and contemporary funding levels, misguided optimism, while the later presents a troubling situation where NASA must decide to either scale back its science efforts or prolong development of the “Journey to Mars” even further. Considering that the first half of the 2020s is when much of the technological development for a Mars campaign—deep space habitats, solar electric propulsion, in-situ resource utilization capability—will be at least in their early stages and this require significant funding, this is a troubling possibility indeed.

A Lingering Concern

There exists a further, if perhaps unsubstantiated, concern about the SLS launch mandate. Many within the space policy community have a lingering, if not often spoken, suspicion that the SLS program may not survive in current form and scale after the next administration takes office.

If, for reasons of funding, broad programmatic or policy change, or some other set of circumstances, there is a sizable delay in the SLS’s capacity or capability to fly, will the Europa project be able to switch launch vehicles? If so, this would likely force a redesign of the mission, additional costs, and delays which run risk of missing the mandated launch date.

This concern may well prove inconsequential, yet is among the questions that emerge from mandating a flight aboard a vehicle which has not yet flown.

The Author’s Perspective

As with Rep. Culberson, the author believes a research mission to Europa presents a tremendously exciting opportunity for our exploration of the universe. As he said in one interview, Culberson “make sure you and I are here to see those first tube worms and lobsters on Europa,” or, if the movie Europa Report is to be believed, man-eating octopi. Regardless of the form of life to be found in Europa, if any is to be found at all, a flagship mission to the moon represents what NASA does best: pioneering exploration efforts to places which offer tantalizing possibilities for discovery.

However, Culberson has also stated that “one of the biggest problems NASA’s got is political interference, whether it be from presidents or from Congress. We have an obligation to ensure that our hard-earned tax dollars are spent wisely and intelligently and frugally;” that “the agency should be driven by scientists, engineers and astronauts rather than politicians.”

A policy directive to launch the Europa mission aboard the SLS is antithetical to the obligations he lays out. Directing NASA to utilize a specific vehicle is, in effect, Congress playing engineer. Considering the costs associated with one SLS launch, let alone two, hard-earned tax dollars will be spent far less wisely and frugally than they would if other readily available options, such as an Atlas V, or options bound to come online before the mission’s preliminary design review, such as a Falcon Heavy, were utilized.

This is not to say that the SLS can’t be the optimal launch vehicle for the Europa mission. It may well be that, at the end of the day, the benefits borne from SLS’s capabilities, as laid out by NASA leadership, outweigh the costs associated with its launch; and that Congress allocates adequate finances to support the project as mandated without jeopardizing other parts of NASA’s mission.

Yet the choice of SLS for launch should, like every other science mission launched, be NASA’s to make, following a careful internal consideration of the agency’s broad portfolio, priorities, and need for resource distribution. If the historical and contemporary precedent of agency funding levels and policy instability counts for much, anything otherwise is a risky proposition.

Culberson’s advocacy for and passion about a Europa mission is highly commendable; the exploration of outer space indeed needs more staunch advocates. Yet, with the SLS launch mandate, Congress is playing politics with planetary science, risking other opportunities for groundbreaking discovery by forcing launch aboard another politically-motivated, highly expensive program with no guarantee of the increased funding needed to support it.

The Congressman is right. This is one of the biggest problems NASA’s got.

Look at the Stars Tonight

“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” – Carl Sagan

These are troubling times, we are a society with trouble, ours is a troubled world. Human brutality brutally dehumanizing, systematic and systematized violence, institutional oppression and oppressive institutions are the realities of our day – regardless of perspective, regardless of whether or not one chooses to turn a blind eye to them.

I tend not to raise my voice on our issues through social media; I believe actions in the societal arena speak louder than words. Must one march to solve our woes? Maybe. I can’t claim I do. Must one debate those whose opinions they find deplorable? Maybe. I tend to keep clear of such confrontation. Perhaps I am a bystander, and I concede there are no innocent bystanders. I acknowledge this. Still, I wonder: must one respect the sanctity that is another’s humanity and personhood, regardless of one’s perceptions and prejudices? To that, I believe in a resounding ‘Yes.’ It is a step – not a solution, but a step – toward righting what’s wrong.

And, must one take the time to stare at the stars each night? Such will not end racism; will not solve global catastrophe; will not fix or reform or change broken systems or institutions. Yet to this, I believe too in a ‘Yes.’

Ours is a troubled world – and an infinitesimally small one. We do not readily recognize it in our daily lives; our concerns and considerations, contemplations and confrontations revolve around the immediate, the local, the contemporary. We think too much of ourselves – and, it seems, too little of others – to realize that we are all, together, spinning on a tiny speck of dust in an only slightly larger carousel of planets through a tiny galaxy in a vast, enormous, grand universe. That we live and die, that societies rise and fall, that civilizations come and perish, in a cosmic blink-of-the-eye.

Look at the stars. Everyone should look at the stars. Tiny dots of light, billions of miles away, that are in actuality burning balls of gas thousands of times larger than the world we call our own.

Look at the stars and realize that our neighbors, our neighborhood, our city, our state, our society, our country, our world are all we have, all we can lean on, all we can relate to in even the most minute way, in an existence of otherwise vast indifference.

Look at the stars and realize that at none of them, not a single one, is there another form of life that feels, thinks, fears, dreams, loves, and hates in comparable ways as you, if not ways similar to you, if not the same as you.

Look at the stars and consider that, in a universe of trillions of stars and uncountable planets, there are only 7 billion human beings. There are only 7 billion souls – more galaxies there are, than souls.

Look at the stars and realize that each life is precious. For, in a hundred billion other galaxies, you will not find another – only on this troubled world, only in the eyes of the person you may hate or deplore or despise or revile, will you encounter another soul.

Will this end racism? No. Will this mend race relations? No. Will this stop hunger and poverty and war and hate and suffering and terror and torture? No. Might it shift perspectives just a little bit; move the needle a little forward toward progress; slightly alter the context we see each other in? I think so. It does for me.

It’s not a solution. It may seem trite or trifling to some. But it’s a step. And at times like these, little steps forward seem to be what we have.

Look at the stars tonight.


The “Asian Space Race” and China’s Solar System Exploration: Domestic and International Rationales


On April 22, the People’s Republic of China’s National Space Administration announced its plan to launch a robotic Mars mission in 2020, to reach Mars by 2021. The project will involve an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. If successful, it will be China’s first visit to Mars and could mark the first Asian landing on the Red Planet, potentially making the country the third power (behind the Soviet Union and the United States) to touch down and operate on the Martian surface.

This announcement follows on the heels of a number of successive Chinese space achievements and aligns with China’s other ambitious short-term space goals. In 2007 and 2010, China launched, respectively, the lunar orbiters Chang’e 1 and 2. Chang’e 3, which launched, landed, and deployed a rover on the Moon’s surface in late 2013, was the first lunar soft-landing in 37 years as well as the first Asian soft-landing on the Moon.

Looking ahead at the next five years, China intends to conduct a lunar sample-return program with the lander Chang’e 5, expected to launch in 2017, and a potential Chang’e 6 mission in the early 2020s. Meanwhile, in 2018, Chang’e 4 will land on the lunar far-side, the first surface exploration effort of its kind.

A common question for those studying, analyzing, and involved in space programs is that of the rationale. Why do we go to space? What value do we derive from our activity, be it human or robotic, beyond the bounds of Earth? These questions go beyond the philosophical – their answers directly affect policy, planning, financing, and technological development.

Much has been made of the national security aspect of China’s space program, and for good reason: the dual-use nature of space assets and the strategic advantages of space supremacy are compelling to an increasingly assertive military power such as China. Yet unlike activity in Earth orbit, lunar and interplanetary exploration is of marginal direct national security value. Still, the Chinese government has evidently committed its political weight and financial resources to an ambitious, multi-element campaign of solar system exploration.

What motivates China’s robotic exploration aspirations? Moreover, what are the implications of those motivations for American policymakers? And more broadly, what does a ‘case-study’ of China’s efforts indicate about the present-day rationales supporting a robotic exploration program?

Broad Rationales for Robotic Exploration

Numerous rationales for space exploration have been issued and debated over the years. Of the more compelling arguments regarding what motivates policymakers to pursue a space program, those that highlight the prestige, national security, and geopolitical benefits are most supported by historical evidence.

Early rocketry was driven by the pursuit for ICBM capabilities. The international politics and competition of the Cold War were manifest in the ‘Space Race,’ serving as leading rationales and motivations for the Apollo landings. The joint American and Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission underscored a display of international cooperation and détente. National security rationales influenced the formulation of the Space Shuttle, a program intended in part to carry DoD satellites to orbit. The Soviet Buran project was a response to the Shuttle, spurred by Soviet security concerns over American spaceplane capabilities. Space Station Freedom was in large part a prestige project, and the eventual cooption of Russia into the International Space Station was motivated by the national security desire to keep Russia’s engineers, technologies, and capabilities in “friendly” post-Soviet Russian hands.

These examples, of course, focus squarely on human spaceflight. What of robotic exploration? Non-human exploration through robotics is often seen as an ‘extension of human capabilities,’ capable of engaging in research endeavors and pursuing a deeper understanding of the universe beyond the reach of a human presence. Accordingly, a principal motivation for robotic exploration is the pursuit of science and knowledge.

The endeavor of robotic exploration also reflects geopolitical interests and involves the pursuit of prestige, if with a lower profile than human missions. Discoveries and scientific breakthroughs are demonstrative of a country’s “brain power,” an element of its soft-power standing. Following the successful New Horizons mission to Pluto, for example, public commentators and NASA made note that the United States became “the first country to visit every planet in the solar system.” Arguably, the Soviet Unions’ and the United States’ robotic exploration post-‘Space Race’ was a “brain race,” a continuation of the technological competition and duel for soft-power influence that marked relations between the two countries throughout the Cold War. Notably, following the failure of their manned heavy-lift N1 rocket program, the Soviet response to the first Apollo missions was Luna 16, a robotic spacecraft that conducted a lunar sample-return.

Drawing historical evidence from the Cold War-era to argue that geopolitics and prestige were primary motivators of robotic exploration admittedly stands on shaky ground. Both the United States and the Soviet Union pursued human spaceflight in tandem with their robotic programs. Those campaigns of human spaceflight overshadowed robotic exploration as demonstrators of prestigious might and international superiority. Yet in the present day, the emerging space powers in Asia which lack a human spaceflight program – India, Japan, and South Korea – have evidently pursued and found robotic exploration as an equal substitute for displays of geopolitical strength and technological superiority. After all, as an “extension of human capabilities” robotic exploration involves the elements of prestige and power that come associated.

As is increasingly apparent and as noted by multiple commentators and sources, a ‘space race’ – involving significant competition through solar system exploration – is blossoming between these Asian space powers and China.

Today’s ‘Robotic Space Race’

India became the first Asian power to successfully reach Mars orbit with its Mangalyaan probe in 2014. Looking to the future, India and France have signed a cooperative agreement for a joint mission involving a Mars orbiter in 2020, and have signaled that a Mars lander wouldn’t be far off. Meanwhile, India deployed the Chandrayaan 1 lunar orbiter and impactor in 2008 and has plans to launch Chandrayaan 2, featuring a lunar orbiter, lander, and rover, in late 2017.

Japan’s Hagoromo lunar orbiter, deployed in 1990, reached orbit but ceased transmitting enroute. The country’s SELENE orbiter and impactor, launched in 2007, was a success and Japan now has plans to land a rover on the Moon’s surface in 2018. Though the Nozomi spacecraft sent to Mars, launched in 1998, was a failure, Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency has been considering plans for a robotic sample-return mission to one of Mars’ moons in the early 2020s. Meanwhile, Japan has embarked on a successful campaign of asteroid exploration, with the Hayabusa spacecraft returning a sample of asteroid material in 2010 and the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, launched in 2014, scheduled to return more asteroid material in 2020.

South Korea has its own Moon campaign, with hopes to reach the Moon with an orbiter by 2018. A subsequent Moon lander is planned for 2020 or sometime shortly thereafter. The lander phase of the program will correspond with the development of a new, heavier-lift South Korean launch vehicle.

Lending credence to the idea that these campaigns of robotic exploration constitute a ‘space race’ is that these counties’ efforts, running simultaneous with each other, occur at a time of significant tension, conflict, and competition between them and China. Just as the Earthly politics of the Cold War influenced American and Soviet space policy and prompted rationales for programs, politics influence the current intent and aspirations of Asia’s space powers. China’s space efforts fit neatly and understandably within the emerging ‘robotic space race.’

The motivations of the geopolitical environment are of great significance for China’s space program, and to understand the domestic and international rationales behind China’s robotic exploration a brief discussion of China’s context is necessary.

China’s Context

The People’s Republic of China is a rising global power seeking to establish political, military, and economic hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese leadership is motivated by two principal concerns. First, the government is intent on asserting Chinese power, both hard and soft, to achieve those international aims. Second, as a single-party undemocratic state built upon the Chinese Communist Party’s legacy, the leadership seeks to tangibly demonstrate progress that resonates with the Party’s narrative of continual economic prosperity, scientific achievement, and national pride and unity so as to legitimize continued one-party rule.

Crucial among the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative is the legacy of “national humiliation” and the subsequent aspiration to achieve ‘great power’ status. Drawing from the past half-century’s precedent of superpower capabilities, China’s leadership has concluded that, for China to be seen as a great power in the eyes of its own population, its neighbors, and the broader international community, the country must possess the features characteristic of one – such as an advanced technology sector, a force-projecting blue water navy, and a space program.

These motivations feed directly into the domestic and international rationales underlying China’s space efforts, including its robotic exploration of the solar system.

Domestic Rationales

China’s space efforts and high-profile space activities, such as the Chang’e 3 lander and the upcoming plans for lunar sample return and a Mars rover, seek to tangibly and propagandistically validate the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy and entrench its hold on power. They are conducted to demonstrate that the Chinese Communist Party is the best provider of material benefits to the Chinese people and the best organization to propel China to its rightful place in world affairs.

A nation’s rhetoric is indicative of its rationales and motivations. Space missions are routinely described in the Chinese media and in government statements as advancing and enhancing China’s power and prestige, rousing national ethos, and inspiring people of all of China’s ethnic groups for “the socialist cause with Chinese characteristics.”

In its “Space Activities in 2011” white paper, the Chinese government laid out its rationale for actively pursuing a space program. The paper stated that “Space activities play an increasingly important role in China’s economic and social development. [Now is] a crucial period for China in building a moderately prosperous society, deepening reform and opening-up, and accelerating the transformation of the country’s pattern of economic development. China [pursues space] to meet the demands of economic development, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress; and to improve the scientific and cultural knowledge of the Chinese people, protect China’s national rights and interests, and build up its national comprehensive strength.”

In 2007, following the success of the Chang’e 1 orbiter, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued statements on behalf of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the State Council, and the Central Military Commission – three leading organs of the Chinese government. He said that Chang’e 1 “demonstrates that our comprehensive national strength, our creative capabilities and the level of our science and technology continues to increase, with extremely important practical implications… for strengthening the force of our ethnic solidarity.”

During the landing of Chang’e 3, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center to hear the mission declared a success. In a congratulatory message, the Communist Party’s Central Committee, State Council, and the Central Military Commission called the mission a “milestone in the development of China’s space programs and a new glory in Chinese explorations.”

A commentary in the state-run Xinhau news agency opinioned that the success of Chang’e 3 was a realization of China’s space dream, “a source of national pride and inspiration for further development, [that makes] China stronger and will surely help realize the broader Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.”

In another Xinhau article, describing China’s Mars plans, a leading motivation for the upcoming mission is that “exploring the Red Planet and deep space will cement China’s scientific and technological expertise. The knock-on effect is that innovations and independent intellectual property rights will surge, and, as a result, China’s core competence will increase, pushing development in other industries.”

This economic and scientific rationale is a key motivator for China’s robotic exploration program. As President Xi Jinping stated at a speech (note: link is in Chinese) to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2014, China is “closer than at any other time in its history of reaching its mighty goal of the rejuvenation of the Chinese people” and must “continue by resolutely implementing the strategy of using science and education to rejuvenate the country and innovation to drive development and unswervingly continue on the road of making China into a strong science and technology power.”

To that, the robotic lunar exploration program (note: link is in Chinese) is a “major strategic decision by the Party Central Committee, State Council, and CMC taking a broad look at our country’s overall modernization and construction by grasping the world’s large science and technology events and promoting our country’s space enterprise development, promoting our country’s scientific and technological advancement and innovation, and improving our country’s comprehensive national power.”

Rhetoric aside, China’s lunar efforts are premised upon tangible economic gain. China’s scientific exploration of the Moon has centered around the composition of the lunar surface. The country’s researchers are particularly interested in Helium-3, with the hope that Chinese excavation of the material could eventually power a nuclear fusion reactor.

In the words of the head of China’s first phase of lunar exploration, “Helium-3 is considered as a long-term, stable, safe, clean and cheap material for human beings to get nuclear energy through controllable nuclear fusion experiments. If we human beings can finally use such energy material to generate electricity, then China might need 10 tons of helium-3 every year.” More to the point, he continued with “the harvesting of Helium-3 on the Moon could start by 2025. Our lunar mining could be but a jumping off point for Helium 3 extraction from the atmospheres of our Solar System gas giants, Saturn and Jupiter.”

Clearly, a myriad of development, technological innovation, economic prosperity, and national pride rationales influence the Chinese government’s plans and aspirations for robotic exploration. As can be seen in the Chinese rhetoric issued on its robotic exploration, China’s intent on becoming a “rejuvenated” and “great” power underlie these motivations. To that, they feed into the international rationales for Chinese exploration, as too does the geopolitical environment in which China currently exists.

International Rationales

China’s ambition for space achievement is driven by a belief that the technological, economic, and prestige benefits that result increase China’s national power, thereby enhancing China’s overall influence and giving China more freedom of action.

This is critical for China’s standing and position in the international community. China is pursuing hegemony in the Asia-Pacific, prompting major security concerns among its neighbors, but does so at its own risk – China’s neighbors are among its top trade partners, and are thereby responsible for China’s continued economic growth. This requires a delicate strategic balancing act in which China must minimize confrontation with potential foes and regional competitors, lest conflict undermine its critically important development goals and thereby sour the Communist Party’s legitimizing narrative, while at the same time strengthening economic ties with them. In turn, China’s neighbors are pursuing hedging strategies in which they strengthen security ties with China’s main military competitor – the United States – while continuing to seek beneficial economic arraignments with China.

In light of this strategic posturing, China’s hope is to arrive at a position of such eminence and clout through its economic dominance and soft-power influence that its neighbors simply defer to its wishes instead of confronting its rise. The successful execution of this strategy would avoid a regional – or global – conflict that would lay ruin to the interconnected and co-reliant economics of the Asia-Pacific.

China’s pursuit of robotic exploration and the prestige of achievement is a method by which it seeks to arrive at that eminence.

Comments from leaders in China’s space sector and government reflect that intent. Ye Peijian of the Chinese Academy of Sciences wrote that, with China’s Mars mission, “we are not the first Asian nation to send a probe to Mars, [but] we want to start at a higher level.” Primer Wen Jaibao noted that Chang’e 1 was “raising our international standing.”

China’s neighbors, of course, understand the Chinese strategy and have thus pursued their own robotic exploration programs as a method to undermine China’s rising influence. Chinese achievement in space is less prestigious, and carries less weight in regional geopolitics, when its neighbors have succeeded with equivalent missions in a similar timeframe. Hence, the Asian ‘space race.’

Of importance is that China’s rhetorical explanation for space exploration emphasizes its peaceful nature, an attempt to posture and portray the country as being on a ‘peaceful’ rise – one which its neighbors should not fear. China’s 2011 space white paper notes that “China will work together with the international community to maintain a peaceful and clean outer space and endeavor to make new contributions to the lofty cause of promoting world peace and development.” Following Chang’e 3, President Xi Jinping noted that the mission was an “outstanding contribution of China in mankind’s peaceful use of space.”

Finally, there is an element of international cooperation within China’s robotic program that serves China’s purposes. While some commentators have rightly pointed out opportunities for deeper cooperation between China’s space agency and others, it is important to note that space cooperation does not drive relations on Earth but rather reflects them. The Apollo-Soyuz program, for example, was a result of increasing détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, not the catalyst. Nonetheless, space cooperation can strengthen China’s international position, increasing its influence among less developed countries and building China’s reputation as that of a reliable and attractive space partner.

To that end, space cooperation in the robotic sphere supports China’s goal of establishing a multi-polar world, undermining the global unipolar hegemony currently enjoyed by the United States. In no position yet to compete with the United States for global hegemony, China hopes to arrive at a position of rough equality, or at least similar influence, in the international balance of power so as to shape and define it to fit its national interest.

As an example of this: China’s longest cooperative space relationship is with Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union. Notably, Russia in the present day is also seeking to disrupt the United States’ dominance of the global order through its actions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. China has a long-term cooperation plan with Russia resulting in technology transfer, agreements, and cooperation on deep space exploration. China’s first attempt at a robotic Mars mission, the Yinghuo 1 orbiter, was launched attached to Russia’s Phobos-Grunt probe, which ended in failure. Even still, Russia is receptive to cooperating with China on the future exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency and China have begun to seek out and identify areas in which the two can cooperate on future robotic space science missions and exploration.

These international rationales for robotic exploration, along with the domestic, drive Chinese space policy. China’s space policy, meanwhile, is an element of its broader policies and strategy for regional hegemony, ‘great power’ status, and domestic development. For the United States – whose hegemony in the Asia-Pacific is at risk by China’s rise – the implications of China’s robotic exploration should be carefully considered. As with trade and economic policy and national security strategy, this consideration is necessary to develop policies which sustain and preserve the United States geopolitical leadership.

Implications for American Policymakers

In China’s robotic exploration, three principal implications arise for American policymakers.

First, China’s campaign of solar system exploration is a reflection of its quest for domestic economic and technological development – facets of China’s pursuit of ‘great power’ status – and should therefore be regarded as a metric to gauge China’s progress toward that status. China’s leadership has calculated that robotic exploration is one foundation by which to build the nation and has accordingly poured financial resources into that exploration. So long as China’s present-day strategy remains the country’s guiding plan, this robotic exploration will continue.

As such, changes in China’s intention for robotic exploration will indicate a change in Chinese grand strategy, signal a change in the rhetorical narrative underpinning the Communist Party’s legitimacy, or reflect a major downturn in the economic strength and technological capabilities supporting the Chinese effort. The particular details and ramifications of any of these changes have yet to reveal themselves, but would undoubtedly necessitate a major strategic reaction or shift by the United States.

Second, China’s campaign of solar system exploration is a reflection of its quest for international standing and regional influence. So long as that quest continues, so too should China’s robotic efforts. As such, so too will the competing space efforts of China’s weary neighbors. If the United States wishes to undermine China’s rise to regional hegemony, the opportunity to do so through heightened cooperation with or support for the space programs of U.S. Asian allies – Japan, India, and South Korea – presents itself as a strategically available and beneficial option.

Third, China’s campaign of solar system exploration involves elements of international cooperation which may undermine the United States’ leadership in space and, as a result, leadership on Earth. Countries not sharing the United States’ security concerns may turn to China as a partner with which to pursue space exploration. China may seek out avenues for cooperation with countries it is building relationships with – at the detriment to the United States’ influence with those countries. More importantly, the United States’ established and most prominent ‘ally’ – the European Union – has sought deeper ties with China in space. Though international cooperation is space does not directly influence relations on Earth, this is a reflection of a gradually shifting balance of power where a multi-power world, in which multiple ‘great powers’ with space exploration capabilities seek cooperation with each other, is emerging from the current one dominated by United States technological and geopolitical hegemony.

This point invariably prompts discussions of Sino-American cooperation in space exploration. That is too broad a discussion, with too many positives and negatives in favor of and opposed to the idea, for the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, the rationales behind China’s exploration program will motivate any change in current law preventing cooperation in space between the United States in China or lend credence to the preservation of the legal status-quo.

It is the opinion of the author, however, that Sino-American cooperation in robotic exploration may be one method by which the United States could to co-opt China’s rise and quest for influence. China will invariably pursue solar system exploration for its national interest; without the opportunity for cooperation with China in space exploration, the United States stands by idly as the Chinese pursue other partners and objectives at the detriment to American global influence. If the Chinese are seeking to rise in the international system so as to change it and are doing so in part through solar system exploration, it may be wise strategy for the United States to cooperate with – and co-opt – the Chinese in order to preserve the American national interest and international status quo to the greatest extent possible.

China as a ‘Case Study’

Though the domestic and international context supporting them are unique to the country, China’s rationales for robotic exploration are indicative of the present-day motivations for programs of solar system exploration.

Robotic exploration goes beyond the pursuit of science and knowledge, though those are key goals for and benefits derived from such exploration. It directly connects to a country’s goals of economic and technological development, national pride, and international influence and clout. To that end, robotic exploration supports a country’s broad ‘grand strategy’ – its geopolitical posturing and domestic planning.

For countries which lack programs of human exploration, robotic missions serve as equivalent substitutes through which they derive the prestige and political benefits that manned spaceflight provides. India, Japan, and South Korea have, in addition to other reasons, pursued relatively ambitious programs of robotic exploration in order to compete with China, just as the Soviet Union and the United States pursued human spaceflight and a manned Moon program to compete with each other.

To that end: some have argued that the United States and China are not nor will be in a ‘space race.’ It is true that the United States and China will likely not be locked in competition for equal achievement and prominence in human spaceflight; the United States remains the predominant spacefaring country in the world. Yet the thesis of those arguments miss the mark: more than just competition in space, a ‘space race’ is an element of broader geopolitical competition, such as what the United States and China – and India, Japan, South Korea, and China – now find themselves in. So long as geopolitical tensions and shifts to the regional and global balance of power continue, so too will these countries find themselves ‘racing’ in space to support and satisfy their ‘race’ on Earth. Whereas the rationale for human spaceflight in the 1960s and early 1970s was to win a ‘space race,’ so too is the rationale for robotic spaceflight in the 2010s and beyond.

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