While China and Japan back new space programmes, E&T finds worry replacing excitement for the industry in the Western world.
In recent months, the US space industry has been coasting, fully expecting a shuddering halt in the absence of a confirmed budget for NASA. With the 'space wires' dominated by talk of project cancellations and job losses measured in thousands, uncertainty - rather than challenge or leadership - has been the watchword of the space community. The mood at the 61st International Astronautical Congress (IAC), held in Prague at the end of September, reflected the frustration of budding space explorers, private and government alike.
Speaking at a plenary session on the impact on industry of government space policy, Boeing's vice-president for Exploration Launch Systems, James Chilton, confirmed that uncertainty is affecting the way the company does business. In an industry that is 'shedding 20,000 jobs,' he added, young professionals are right to ask 'what will I be working on?'.
Although it came a day too late for the plenary, the announcement on 29 September that the US Congress had approved a NASA authorisation bill granting the Agency $19bn for 2011 will help to allay fears that President Obama is intent on cramping NASA's style. Although the bill supports plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s, it cancels NASA's existing Constellation programme for lunar exploration. Nevertheless, according to NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, 'lunar science and lunar exploration is alive and well in NASA' and 'the Moon is part of any long-term sustainable presence in space'.
Certainly, China would appear to agree with this stance, having launched its second lunar spacecraft, Chang'e-2, on 1 October. The nation has no confirmed manned lunar programme, but is following a recognised stepping-stone approach with its plans to begin building a space station in low Earth orbit next year, while even former NASA boss Mike Griffin has said that the next person to set foot on the Moon is as likely to be Chinese as American.
Given the rise of the People's Republic in the spacefaring stakes, senior Chinese delegates were conspicuous by their absence at this year's IAC, but the 2013 congress - recently confirmed for Beijing - will offer a timely opportunity for China to impress the world with its prowess in space. Moreover, it is possible that Obama's intention to reform the US export policy regime will by then allow China's Long March to return to the commercial launch market.
Japan, too, has seen recent advances in government support for space development, with its new space law of August 2008 and the release of a 'Basic Plan for Space Policy' in June 2009. According to Shoichiro Asada, general manager for space systems at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, there is now 'more emphasis on the promotion of space as an industry'. This includes developing and providing more competitive space products, he said, and enhancing their image as 'trustworthy and assured, much like Japan's Bullet Train'.
If the policy works, it would give a significant boost to Japan's rocket industry, which has been seen for many years as expensive and uncompetitive in the world market. A recent encouraging sign was the government's decision to extend the launch window for Japan's Tanegashima launch base 'from 190 days to the whole year', confirmed Hiroshi Yamakawa, secretary-general of the Strategic HQ for Space Policy. Launches had previously been constrained to three periods, of about six months in total, as a result of pressure from the powerful Japanese fishing unions.
According to Yamakawa, the Strategic HQ for Space Policy was established in 2008 (as a government body) 'to foster strategic industries for the 21st century' and help coordinate a £3bn budget for space (£2bn of which is for JAXA, the Japanese space agency).
The views of Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, were characteristically pragmatic: 'Poor government policies can impede commercial business,' he said, but 'government collaboration in a coordinated manner can bring major benefits'. As an example of the latter, Sweeting cited the Disaster Management Constellation (DMC), a series of small imaging satellites built by SSTL for a number of international government entities.
Sweeting welcomed the growing role of the European Commission 'as a driver for a more commercial approach' to space systems such as the Galileo satellite navigation system, and the formation (in March) of the UK Space Agency, which he said 'came about because of a realisation that space is important' to business and our everyday lives. The UKSA 'will clearly have a role in encouraging space developments', he added, 'and in stimulating young people to enter high-tech industries'.
On balance, the general consensus among established 'European' space players, regarding the impact of government policy, was restrained. ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain saw 'no significant change for ESA except possibly [for an enhancement of its role] in security', under the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme. Jean-Yves Le Gall, chairman and & CEO of Arianespace, closed the plenary with the conclusion that, to ensure the long-term stability and competitiveness of the sector, 'an evolution of space policies and industrial organisations is better than a revolution'.
While it may be safe, sensible and politically-correct to encourage evolution over revolution, a significant minority represented by the young, the entrepreneurial and the otherwise independently-minded are disappointed by the slow pace of space development. It will be interesting to see if the Communist approach to space exploration will rekindle the element of excitement that galvanised the Western world in the 1960s.