Mars Express has plans of its own that range back further in time, to the ancient moon Phobos as part of the Phobos-Grunt mission. (If you haven’t read yet about Mars Express, it’s the spacecraft which made the first ever flyby of Mars. It was launched in 2002, so they’ve had a long record of exploring the red planet.)
On Earth, Mars is like China to the global scientific world. You have a lot of good and high-quality science going forward and are currently able to see all the data in the world, but you still have to understand the basics of science. The Chinese government is trying to do that now with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and the Mars Exploration Rovers, and other spacecraft. The problem is, China produces far more scientific data than any of its global competitors and the money that is being spent on the two programs has led to a problem as the cost keeps going up and up.
Now, I don’t want to paint the Chinese into a corner, and many people will point to that and say how bad science is going on in China today, which is true. I think many people are underestimating it here. That’s certainly the case of the MSL program. The initial cost was estimated at over $10 billion, and it didn’t turn out too well at all. The program got a lot of pushback from the Chinese people who had an ideological problem with the very science of Earth - and with our Earth - and they didn’t buy the idea that the science of Mars could potentially work there. They knew their science would fail, so they didn’t want to do that.
Now, MSL and the Russian MAV (Mars Atmospheric Vehicle) are not going to have problems with a similar problem: MSL is going to be about the same cost as the Russian version and it’s going to launch every two years for that period. Its first two missions, Exploration Marathon and Opportunity, were pretty good successes. We don’t have a Mars sample return yet, but we have at least some ideas as to when we’d like to do that. There are things in the science community that are looking at it.
But the problem with the big Chinese space projects is that we are now doing almost every other important endeavor – climate change, water, agriculture, even mining – from those other countries. It is a little bit difficult now for China to have the same level of leadership internationally as they are now doing. We know that it’s not just about science going on here in China. Many people look back at it today, and wonder how it could ever be done in China.
But, as you know, China is more than just the science. They want to create the image as being a leader in space. But what that means is they don’t do what Japan does in the world…they do most of their space in low-Earth orbit. They’re trying to do some work with the International Space Station, but the space station is expensive and the ISS is not there.
I’ve talked a lot about the Chinese culture and how they have an image problem. It’s their image problem. If you talk to Chinese scientists, they really think it’s not good enough to have that kind of technology, they don’t want to be seen as a follower of the United States for science or technology in space. Many of their people think they should be doing stuff abroad so people won’t think they’re so primitive.
But it’s not that simple. China has a great investment in space technology. Their space program is well known, and many Chinese companies have been involved in the early stages of the program. They are investing in it in the Chinese space industry here, and they have a lot of that investment.
If you’re coming from the United States, you get the impression that China spends a lot of money, and that’s pretty accurate. But, as an American, I think you need to look at how people make their decision. Does what’s available on Earth provide a good product for the best value? If it doesn’t, it really shouldn’t be there. The science at ISS is amazing. The economics of it are bad. The U.S. should be doing this, but we’re not.
That’s why a lot of the work that was done in the U.S. to make it work better – to make it a sustainable science program – is being done here.
Now, I know people always say that the Chinese, because of the image thing, want to pursue science. They think that making science a priority in the government is the way to make China a leader in space. But you have to