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Dragon may eventually provide solace to U.S. manned space efforts

While highly anecdotal, an example of the arguably shifting balance of global power can be observed in the fact that China is now regularly sending astronauts into space, while the U.S. is, for the most part, grounded in terms of manned space flight.

I. China Continues Manned Flight Progress

China is planning a fifth manned space mission.  Slotted for June 2013, the mission will test an upgraded capsule-type spacecraft, which will be replacing the proven 3-passenger Shenzhou 9.

While crude by space-plane standards, the Shenzhou 9 performed remarkably well, safely ferrying Chinese astronauts (aka "taikonauts") into orbit.  In June, China sent its first female Taikonaut -- Liu Yang -- into space.  She helped the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft manually dock with an orbiting spacelab, which launched in 2011.

Taikonaut
China will send more Taikonauts into space in 2013 as it moves towards making its own space station. [Image Source: NPR]

China is also mastering the art of unmanned space flight. In June, its Shenzhou 8 automated capsule-orbiter successfully docked with the Tiangong-1 space lab, a Chinese orbiting laboratory that is performing zero gravity experiments on live fish, plants, worms, bacteria, and human cancer cells.

China has plans for an orbiting space station, which will go operation by 2020, and longer term plans of establishing a moon colony.  China initially considered joining the International Space Station (ISS) effort, but amidst trade tensions with the U.S., is currently pursuing plans for its own private rival station.  

The Chinese space station is expected to weigh around 60 tons, versus the much larger 400-ton ISS.  One major difference in the concept art sketches of the upcoming station, is a reduced solar panel footprint, this hints that the Chinese station may feature less power electronics.

China space station
The Chinese space station will be smaller than the iSS with less solar panels.
[Image Source: BBC News]

The unnamed upcoming station will feature two lab modules, a 20-ton central habitation module, and a pair of ports to allow a robotic supply capsule and a manned capsule to simultaneously be docked.

II. Shenzhou vs. Dragon vs. Soyuz vs. Apollo D-2 

The Shenzhou capsules are similar to the General Electric Comp.'s (GE) Apollo mission proposal (D-2), which was similar to the later Russian Soyuz capsule.  It should be noted that GE's D-2, Russia's Soyuz, and China's Shenzhou all have slightly different dimensions, suggesting that while they share a common design direction, none of the capsules is a direct "clone" or "copy" of the other [sourcesource].

Manned spacecraft
China's Shenzhou is similar to Soyuz in general design. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

America is currently ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS in Soyuz capsules.  It is finally expected to regain its own domestic launch capability sometime between 2015 and 2017, when SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Comp.) -- Elon Musk's private startup -- finishes its human-rated variant of the Dragon capsule.

With both China and the U.S. pursuing capsule-based designs, it's interesting to compare and contrast the differences.  The main difference is that the Dragon lacks a forward orbital module; limiting the amount of time the crew can spending in orbit.  The orbital and reentry modules cumulatively have 14 cubic meters of habitable space (8 in the unshielded orbital module, 6 from the shielded reentry module), versus approximately 10 cubic meters for the Dragon in the single shielded reentry module.
 
A manned version of the SpaceX Dragon (pictured version is unmanned) will be finished in the new few years. [Image Source: SpaceX/NASA]

The manned variant of the Dragon will be carried aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket (a refreshed version of the current Falcon 9 v1.0) with 5.88 Mega-Newtons of initial thrust.  Comparatively the Shenzhou capsules are delivered aboard a Long March 2F rocket, which provides 5.923 Mega-Newtons of thrust (reportedly) upon takeoff.

It's interesting to observe how that despite the differences in design, the final amount of thrust delivered by the rockets is quite similar.


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Long Run
By Ringold on 11/12/2012 6:13:05 PM , Rating: 0
In the long run, we've got one thing China does not..

Elon Musk, and SpaceX.

America at large, if not NASA, is working to make space profitable for human activities. China is going to space with the unsustainable Apollo model (though much more sustainable then it was for us, given their lack of elections). In the long run, two things drive human innovation and efforts more then anything else: profit and sex. In lieu of the discovery of a colony of Orion slave girls on Mars, my money will bet on SpaceX and their peers all day long.

All the US needs to do is GTFO of the way. We've got a powerful tendency some times to strangle things in red tape. Let these guys do their thing, don't make it near-impossible to get permission for launches and clearance from the FAA, don't let eco-terrorists bury commercial space ports in endless rounds of environmental studies, and the US I feel will absolutely dominate the future of space.




RE: Long Run
By Samus on 11/12/2012 7:00:04 PM , Rating: 2
Unfortunately, China's space program is completely sustainable. They operate it at 1/10th the cost of ours, and they have a lot more money to fund it with than anybody else.


RE: Long Run
By delphinus100 on 11/12/2012 8:49:09 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
...and they have a lot more money to fund it with than anybody else.


But do they in fact do so?

Merely having deep pockets still doesn't insure that you throw a lot of money at your government's space projects.

And then there's the question of how long they can continue to be the economic force they appear to be...


RE: Long Run
By JediJeb on 11/12/2012 11:21:00 PM , Rating: 3
All China would need to do is sell back a few of the bonds they bought from us and we will be funding their space program if they ever need us to.


RE: Long Run
By ClownPuncher on 11/13/2012 11:22:12 AM , Rating: 2
We will be funding them with their own money? Brilliant!


RE: Long Run
By wordsworm on 11/12/12, Rating: 0
RE: Long Run
By Ringold on 11/12/2012 10:07:25 PM , Rating: 3
That's only true if their program is in the name of science and open advancement for all.

I see no evidence of that being the case. It's a Chinese program done in the name of China, for the benefit of the Chinese state, people and military.

Which is fine, that's their sovereign right and all. But it's not like open NASA collaborations with ESA, JAXA etc. Heck, I wish NASA would go a slightly more nationalist route myself. One of these days there will be a legal battle over commercial activities in orbit and on the surface of other worlds, and if we go forward like hippies China, Russia and others will already have ate our lunch by the time we get to the table.


RE: Long Run
By wordsworm on 11/13/2012 9:46:32 PM , Rating: 2
Chinese people are humans, just like us. What they do benefits mankind. We're not going to run out of resources in the solar system. We'll be lucky to see it at all within our lifetimes. Right now, China has a good program going on. We should be happy about that.


RE: Long Run
By Ringold on 11/12/2012 10:12:04 PM , Rating: 2
I agree Samus, with one caveat. Their system of government can lead to a lot of corruption, poor design choices, etc. If they don't keep an eye on it, they could have even state owned enterprises supplying sub-par equipment to pocket cash, stealing materials, etc.

There's also a question that faces every government.. Is ANY government program sustainable with rich-world demographics, which China has? Future budget austerity could topple the whole government there, too, and who knows where a space program would end up after the smoke cleared in a democratic China. SpaceX is heading towards a world where it may need no government business at all.


RE: Long Run
By carage on 11/14/2012 9:43:17 AM , Rating: 2
Apparently they have very deep pockets, and there political system makes it inherently useful even when projects cannot pass any meaningful cost/benefit analysis...as long as it brings political brownie points or "face" for the leaders...

The only possible deterrence is some expensive fireworks.


RE: Long Run
By 91TTZ on 11/16/2012 4:33:22 PM , Rating: 2
When I was a kid we all knew the Soviet Union had very deep pockets. They had tons of money like the USA, maybe even more. Then they went broke.

The problem with closed communist systems is that you don't know what's going on in the inside. We do know that communism leads to corruption and eventual economic collapse though. Expect China to end up the same way.


RE: Long Run
By masamasa on 11/14/2012 2:59:53 PM , Rating: 2
...and the poor remain poor as a result.


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