TCS Daily

The New Space Race?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 18, 2002 12:00 AM

Last week, I wrote about Orion, the nuclear-pulse-powered spacecraft (well, really, a nuclear-explosion-powered spacecraft) and suggested that it might be the favored tool of junior powers looking to leapfrog the United States' position in outer space. This week I'm going to outline just how that might happen.

Imagine that you're, say, China. Used to thinking of your nation as the center of the world for thousands of years, and still, at some level, regarding China's relative impotence and backwardness over the past two or three centuries as a mere interlude in history, you'd like to restore things to what you consider normal.

You could, of course, become a liberal capitalist democracy, free up your citizens' talents and energy, and let the resulting wealth turn you into a superpower over a few decades. And there's always the hope that China will follow this very path, as India (most of the time, at least) appears to be doing.

But the problem with the liberal-democracy route is that it may make the nation as a whole richer and more powerful, but it will endanger the positions and power of a lot of people along the way. That sort of thing makes the command-economy, big-project, military-industrial approach an appealing alternative.

At any rate, a China (or, for that matter, perhaps even an India) looking to make a splash and anxious to get around the United States' supremacy in military (and civilian) space activity might well consider Orion to be appealing. China is not a signatory to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which bars nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and outer space, so that legal barrier would be out of the way. China has acceded to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but that treaty bans only the stationing of nuclear "weapons" in outer space, and there is a plausible argument that nuclear explosives designed to propel a spacecraft are not "weapons" for the purposes of the Treaty.

With international law thus neutralized, the only remedy would be for people to either (1) start a war; or, short of that, (2) to threaten to shoot down the spacecraft, which probably would amount to starting a war anyway. (Jimmy Carter, the least bellicose of American presidents, said that an attack on a U.S. satellite or spacecraft would be treated as an act of war, and it seems unlikely that the Chinese would take a more pacific approach than Carter.) And even if shooting down the spacecraft were thought unlikely to lead to war, it would be unlikely to succeed - the Orion spacecraft would be huge, fast, and designed to survive in the neighborhood of a nuclear explosion: a very difficult target indeed.

The chief restraint on China would thus be world opinion, something to which the Chinese have not shown themselves particularly susceptible. This would be especially true if the Chinese sprung it as a surprise, which they very well might.
Much of the physics and engineering behind Orion is already well-known, and - given that American designers working with puny 1960-vintage computer technology saw the problems as tractable - it's very likely that the Chinese could manage to design and build an Orion craft within a few years of deciding to. Hiding Orion-related work probably wouldn't be very hard, either. China already has extensive space and nuclear-weapons programs, which would tend to conceal the existence of Orion-type research. And much of the necessary research and design work on Orion - involving, as it does, things like the resonance of huge steel plates and massive hydraulic shock absorbers - wouldn't look like space-related research even to an American intelligence agency that discovered it. At least, not unless the intelligence analysts were familiar with Orion, and had the possibility in mind. And how likely is that?

Will we wake up one day to find that a 4,000-ton Chinese spacecraft has climbed to orbit from Inner Mongolia on a pillar of nuclear fireballs and is now heading to establish a base on the Moon? It wouldn't be the first time America has had such a surprise, now would it?



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