Red menace in space? Not quite

Here are extracts from two recent news stories for you to compare and contrast.

First, from the BBC

“Chang’e 1’s launch is the first stage of a lunar exploration project that could see China put a man on the Moon within 15 years.

“But critics, particular those in the United States, worry China’s space programme also has a threatening, military aspect.

“Those fears were voiced in August by Lt-Gen Kevin Campbell, head of the US army’s Space and Missile Defence Command.

“He warned that China might be just three years away from being able to disrupt US military satellites in a regional conflict.”

And from a European Space Agency press release, which was not picked up by any of the major news outlets…

“The ESA ground station network is being mobilised to provide direct support to China’s Chang’e-1 Moon mission. Three ESTRACK stations will be used to track Chang’e-1 on the flight to the Moon and during the critical Moon orbit insertion.”

“At certain points, Chang’e-1 will not be visible from China’s own tracking stations, making ESTRACK support essential for mission success.”

“ESA previously provided ESTRACK services to China for the Double Star mission, which conducted joint studies – together with ESA’s Cluster – of the Sun’s effects on the Earth’s environment.

“ESA stations are remotely controlled from the ESTRACK Control Centre (ECC) located at ESOC, and are normally unmanned for routine operations. For Chang’e-1, engineers will be on duty at the three stations involved to provide quick response in the event of any technical problems.

“Scientists, engineers and ground control experts from ESOC have spent months working to ensure that Chang’e-1 support goes off without a glitch. Preparations included a series of joint meetings in Beijing and Darmstadt, use of ESOC’s reference station for testing, and upgrading station software. ESTRACK controllers have also participated in simulations with their Chinese counterparts.”

“In return for ESA’s tracking services, China will share scientific data generated by the mission and the two agencies will also establish a visitors’ programme so that researchers can learn from each other.”

I have no time for Chinese totalitarian state capitalism, and look forward to the demise of the so-called “communist” government. And like many I was not best pleased with China’s anti-satellite weapon test in January of this year which involved blowing a defunct communications satellite to smithereens. This was akin to shitting in our cosmic back yard, and created a significant additional hazard for other low Earth orbit users.

But outside of the specialist press all we had with Chang’e-1 was pictures and videos of a phallic rocket thrusting its way into the sky, accompanied by the words anxious western pundits bemoaning Chinese advances in space technology and talking of an imminent arms race in space.

Sorry, folks, but it isn’t that simple. The Chinese space programme is 10–20 years behind those of America and Europe, and – ignoring for one moment the fact that Europe does not yet possess the capability to independently launch humans into space – it also lags ESA’s efforts by a long way.

Let’s also not forget that Chang’e-1 is a scientific mission, and as such should be welcomed. If all goes well the satellite will enter lunar orbit on 5 November, and for the next year carry out a 3D mapping our planetary neighbour’s surface.

For a more level-headed western analysis of the Chinese space programme one should turn to the Economist magazine. But even that story requires at least one correction: the launch of the Chang’e-1 probe was not broadcast live, but rather with a short delay so that engineers could pull the plug if anything went wrong. Bad, bad Chinese. They need to learn how to take the occasional failure on the chin, and then simply move on.