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The Space Race Today

Ask most Americans about the space race and they might tell you that it ended when NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin set foot on the moon in 1969. But this isn't the case, especially in Asia, where a handful of nations are now sending up astronauts and satellites as well as lunar and planetary probes that could tell us more about our universe. In this interview, historian Asif Siddiqi, an expert on both Cold War technology and the modern space race, discusses the new Asian space powers and what they've achieved to date, as well as what the future could hold for space exploration in general.


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The moon
The moon can be seen in astonishing detail thanks to Japan's SELENE probe, which took the first high-definition photos of the lunar surface in 2007.
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Courtesy Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)

The new players

NOVA: Is there a "space race" today?

Asif Siddiqi: Well, it certainly seems so if you look at the media these days. China and Japan launched probes to the moon recently, and India's planning to do so next year. But I would add the caveat that a lot of these missions were planned a long time ago. These particular nations' space agencies planned these missions independently and for their own national goals. There's somewhat of a coincidence here in terms of how they're coinciding.

Of course, the outcome is that it does seem like a space race. But this space race is very different from the classic Cold War-related race right after Sputnik, when every mission was a symbolic representation of either nation [the United States or the Soviet Union] and its geopolitical competition with the other nation.

How do the new Asian players change the dynamics set by the classic American-Soviet race?

The entrance of China, Japan, and India changes things on a number of levels. On a more nebulous, intangible level, whenever you have a new power doing relatively new things, it raises the interest of the general public in spaceflight. People start talking about it; you start watching it on television or hearing about it on the radio.

On a second, more practical level, I think that the bigger, more established powers, particularly the United States and Russia, and to some degree the European space powers, have to pay attention to what these Asian upstarts are planning to do. For example, Mike Griffin, who is Administrator of NASA, will occasionally go to a press conference and they'll ask him, "Well, what do you think about China doing this?" At a congressional level, there's also talk of trying to respond to China's growing presence in space.

Michael Griffin
In 2006, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin met his counterpart, Sun Laiyan, of the China National Space Administration and presented him with this photo montage representing both nations.
Courtesy NASA

How significant is China's space program?

China is the most powerful among all the "secondary" space powers. They have been launching satellites since about 1970, they have an incredibly diverse and sophisticated space program, and they launch weather satellites, communication satellites, and spy satellites. Now they're launching probes to the moon. So they have a pretty comprehensive program with many different launch sites.

China has a huge infrastructure on the ground, with hundreds of thousands of people working on the space program. They've announced plans for deep-space missions. But perhaps their single most important achievement in the past few years was launching a man into space, which they did in 2003. Of course, only two other nations have ever had the capability to do this, the United States and the former Soviet Union. So China really launched itself into the stratosphere—no pun intended—in terms of making a claim to be a global space power.

How about Japan's program? How far along is it?

Japan is also an interesting case. They have had a space program since the 1970s, like the Chinese, but Japan has been launching really modest missions in terms of scientific exploration. In the mid-1980s they started to get a little ambitious and launched a probe to Halley's Comet and then a probe to the moon and one to Mars, etc. But they ran into a lot of difficulties in the 1990s and early 2000s, partly because of a slight depression in the Japanese economy. They've had a lot of bad luck, and so they're really trying to catch up.

"Maybe I'm just a hopeless optimist, but I don't think that any kind of war will happen in space in the near future."

One thing about Japan is they don't really play up anything as a nationalistic endeavor. I think that's inherent in post-war Japanese culture. They just haven't talked about it as "this great thing that we've done," whereas the PR about China is much more flowery and "this is all about China."

What are the goals of India's space program?

India has a very unique space program, because it wasn't generated out of a deeply nationalistic sentiment like most other programs. India had a goal, which was expounded by the founder of its space program, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, who essentially stated that India needed a space program because the nation had a lot of poverty. He said that India needed to direct its technology in response to that poverty. So since about the mid-1970s, they geared most of their space satellites and all their space efforts toward, for example, education or agricultural research, communication, those kinds of things.

Indian postage stamp
If all goes to plan, India will soon not have cause to just celebrate others' trips to the moon—as it did with this postage stamp issued after the Apollo 11 landing—but its own as well.
© Ray Roper/iStockphoto

India achieved a very sophisticated capability. And now, in the last three or four years, they have had to think about the kinds of things that major space powers do. So I think they're undergoing a major shift—they're starting to be more ambitious. They're talking about probes to the moon. They're talking about a manned space program. They're talking about hypersonic vehicles. So I think it will be very exciting to see what the next 20 or 30 years has in store for the Indian space program.

It's a very expensive program, and, of course, India still has a huge level of poverty, so there's some criticism. But there is overwhelming public support for the Indian space program, too.

What about the two Koreas? Where do they stand?

Well, the Koreas present a very interesting contrast. South Korea is one of the powerhouses of the Asian economy, while North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world. It's almost devastated, and it has a very totalitarian, repressive regime. Yet in some bizarre way, both Koreas are trying to go to space.

As you might have heard, North Korea has developed some long-range missiles. And they apparently tried to launch a satellite into space a couple of years ago. They claimed it went into orbit, but Western observers discovered that it didn't. But there is something going on there.

South Korea has, of course, a much more developed economy. They have a very sophisticated high-technology sector, and they do advanced research and biotechnology and so on, and they're really putting money into space right now. They're developing a launch vehicle so that they can launch their own satellites without having to depend on others. They're actually developing it in cooperation with Russia. And they're launching a Korean astronaut into space on a Russian rocket soon, too. So they're definitely going to be playing a major role in space in the next decade or so.

Beyond national pride, what benefits do you see for some of the new, smaller players such as Malaysia, which just sent up its first astronaut?

National pride is really the primary beneficiary of these kinds of nations getting in on the space business. One can't ever underestimate that. But if you get involved in this very high-technology field, there are bound to be other benefits. In Malaysia, there's a whole new generation excited about not just space but science in general. And Malaysia is rich enough to pay the Russians an enormous amount of money to send their astronaut up on a Russian rocket and visit the International Space Station. Why not, if it generates so much good publicity?

The first Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor (top), NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko wave farewell before lifting off aboard their Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which docked at the International Space Station on October 12, 2007, for a six-month mission.
Courtesy NASA

New alliances

It seems that Russia has a vested interest in Asian space programs. Does the U.S. as well?

I think less so than the Russians, or the former Soviet Union. Russia and Ukraine have their fingers in the space programs of many other nations. I just saw news that the Prime Minister of India was in Russia today, and the nations signed an agreement to build a joint lunar probe, which they'll launch within the next 10 years. Russia has a lot of expertise and technology, and because they are entering the capitalist economy in a big way, they're trying to sell their services. Anybody who wants to buy really advanced space technology can go to them and get it for pretty cheap. Especially in developing nations, this is a good deal.

And the Chinese are getting into the business, too. They recently launched a satellite for Nigeria and are also launching satellites for a bunch of Asian nations such as Iran and Bangladesh. It'll be interesting to see what the U.S. response is, because recently NASA hasn't been reaching out in the way that it did in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. But there is a reason for that: The U.S. has put all its eggs into this basket of the International Space Station. So they are cooperating in a big way, but just on this one project.

Some people have deemed the International Space Station a boondoggle. What's your take on it?

I think there's some truth in that. I mean, it's very expensive, and not much is happening in terms of a long-term vision. There are a lot of short-term things that are great. The station is expanding, for instance. It's huge now; it has many different modules attached to it. And I think we've learned a lot from the experience. We can't deny its achievements. It is a permanent human presence in space. And it has proved how 15 different nations can cooperate. But it's been implemented very slowly and, in some ways, also poorly. It is kind of a letdown from the kind of things that people had expected humans to do in space, even in the 1960s or 1970s.

Space Station
Astronauts and cosmonauts from over a dozen nations are working together to build the International Space Station, which is scheduled for completion by 2010.
Courtesy NASA

The militarization of space

Would you say that we are in a particularly peaceful and cooperative Space Age?

Probably not. Space travel has never been purely peaceful, since Sputnik, really. Both Russia and the United States had enormous military and intelligence space programs, and still do. (For more on this, see Secret Astronauts and Space Race Time Line.)

A few events in recent times have raised questions about the ostensibly peaceful nature of today's space programs. Last January, China launched a rocket that shot up into space and impacted one of its own satellites and destroyed it in orbit, which is a test of an anti-satellite system. It was a shock to a lot of people, because China was always professing that its program was peaceful. Of course, China's program is not completely peaceful—they launch spy satellites, for example, like other countries.

"China's destruction of a satellite in space was quite unsettling."

A few years ago, the United States, under the Bush Administration, published its own military space doctrine, which was seen by many nations, especially the Russians, as very overtly jingoistic and militaristic. So a lot of countries now see the U.S. space program, especially the U.S. military space program, as one that is making a unilateral push toward the militarization of space. And, of course, it's not the U.S. alone; most countries involved in space travel are starting to think about security issues. Certainly the Israelis, but also the Indians and the Japanese. So there's a concern, I think, among many people that space could be militarized heavily in the next 10 or 20 years.

Do you think this will happen?

Maybe I'm just a hopeless optimist, but I don't think that any kind of war will happen in space in the near future. One reason is that the United States is so dominant. I think that dominance serves as a deterrent against the possibility of space war.

Russia used to have a pretty sophisticated military space capability. They actually launched and operated anti-satellites and had a program in the 1960s to put nuclear bombs in orbit. Of course, with the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union in 1991, a lot of these projects went down the drain. Now they have spy satellites and things, radar reconnaissance satellites and ocean reconnaissance satellites, but nothing very extraordinary.

If anything, the Chinese now, with their recent anti-satellite experiment, have shown that they're willing to take a step beyond. I think probably no other nations besides the U.S. and China are really thinking about active militarization of space. Except for the Chinese test recently, there's been no evidence that any nation is trying to weaponize space. There's a lot of talk, but in terms of practical, actual, realistic things that people have done, there's not evidence.

Now, of course, things could be going on in secret. I fully concede that I might not know many, many different things about what's going on in secret.

Space colony
One of several NASA artistic renderings from the 1970s shows what a space colony might look like. Will such futuristic visions ever be realized?
Courtesy NASA

Do you find current efforts to militarize space unsettling?

China's destruction of a satellite in space was quite unsettling. When you destroy a satellite in space, it creates an enormous amount of debris and pollution in space. So I think that kind of disregard for the space environment shows a nation willing to do certain things, despite the consequences.

A lot of people will tell you it's good to have weapons in space, because it creates a secure situation for certain nations. But I fall on the other side; I think it's good to talk about ways to limit weapons in space in the same ways that there are arms treaties on the ground. You need treaties to monitor and limit.

And certainly China's test, the Bush Administration's rhetoric, Vladimir Putin's rhetoric, none of these things bode well for the next 10 or 20 years, in terms of not putting weapons in space. And I think that's something definitely to worry about.

Spy satellites

The New York Times recently ran a story ["In Death of Spy Satellite Program, Lofty Plans and Unrealistic Bids," 11/11/07] about a U.S. military program that was cancelled after spending billions of dollars on a spy satellite. What does that bode for America's place in this arena?

I'm not necessarily an expert on the American military space program, but I think it shows first that there is a huge military space program in this country—and in other countries—that we don't really know much about. Stories like this open up a black world to the public.

"One of the things that I think people don't realize is that there are always people in space."

But the United States has the biggest, most ambitious, most sophisticated, and most varied space program in the world. There's just no comparison to any other nation, in either the civilian or military sectors. The U.S. has a very large array of satellites. So I don't think [canceling this program] would in any way put the U.S. behind at all.

What about other countries? Are they putting up spy satellites too?

Yes, spy satellites are going up all the time. I'm using that sort of catch-all phrase "spy satellites," but it means a lot of different things. It means satellites that actually photograph the Earth at a very high resolution, perhaps down to about six inches in some cases. And some of these satellites can be as large as a school bus, especially in the American case, while some can be very small. There are also satellites called "signals intelligence satellites," which use electronic detectors to monitor all sorts of electronic and communications traffic all across the world.

Besides the U.S. and Russia, China and Japan launch spy satellites. Israel has a spy satellite program, as does NATO, the United Kingdom, and France. So there are a variety of nations that have spy satellites for their own domestic and strategic needs. It's not illegal, so there's no reason to deny it.

Asif Siddiqi
"Space travel has never been purely peaceful," says space historian Asif Siddiqi, author of many books and articles about the Cold War-era and modern space efforts.
Courtesy Asif Siddiqi

The future in space

What do you consider to be the most exciting developments in our conquest of space today?

With all these new countries entering the fray, you're seeing a lot of excitement about new things happening, new technologies being used. For example, the Japanese moon probe returned the first really high-definition pictures of the surface of the moon, which were fantastic compared to anything that we've seen.

China is talking about sending a robot to the moon, picking up some soil, and bringing it back to Earth. Even in the American program, George Bush's program to return to the moon, and perhaps eventually to Mars, is somewhat exciting.

But I think probably the most exciting thing for me is to see the plurality of nations involved in this endeavor, because I think that it's important to have many different nations, perspectives, and cultures involved in space. I think this is a really good sign, because it's better for countries to pour their money into civilian space activities than to build bombs, for example. It's perhaps a utopian view, but I think it's hopeful.

What do you expect to see in the near term and longer term?

I think in the short term you'll start to see a rising interest in space among the public. By about 2020, I think America will be back on the moon—we'll probably have a base—and that's not too far in the distance, just 13 years from now.

Longer term, maybe 40 or 50 years, it's hard to say. But you might expect humans to be living in space, and not just astronauts but regular people. I certainly think there will be tourist vacations and things like that, probably in the next 10 or 15 years but certainly in the next 50 years. In the next 50 years, we're also certainly going to see missions to Mars.

One of the things that I think people don't realize is that, whenever you look up into the sky, there are always people in space. There have been people up in space since about 1998 or so, continuously. We've already made the move to a permanent human presence in space. That's the one thing that I try to tell people whenever I'm talking about space. In some sense, that may be one of the greatest things that's already happened in the Space Age.

Editor's Notes

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Astrospies.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.