The Challenge of China's Lunar Lander

It has been nearly 50 years since an American became the first human being to walk on the Moon and plant the U.S. flag.  Judging from the successful landing of China's Chang'e-4 probe on the far side of the Moon and China's ambitious plans, including military ones, it may not be that long before a Chinese astronaut picks up that flag and brings it back to us.

We have our own plans, to be sure, and that includes President Trump's already underway U.S. Space Force, yet we still are paying the price for the overreliance on private enterprise to do what needs to be done in space for both national security and, yes, national pride.

Privatization has a role to play in space exploration, hopefully a more robust role than supplying the International Space Station with toilet paper using reusable booster rockets.  Yet the fact that it has been 50 years since we planted our flag on the lunar surface is a telling indictment of privatization of space.  We should already have a base on the Moon getting the guest rooms ready or the Chinese instead of hitching rides into space with the Russkis.

SpaceX has done nice things, if you consider reinventing the wheel instead of building on past success.  When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, we already had a heavy-lift booster in the Saturn V, a lunar spacecraft in the Apollo, with follow-on spacecraft and a reusable transport, the Space Shuttle in the pipeline.

Some people are free marketers warning of how government can muck things up, and it can, but when we needed an atomic bomb or a lunar landing, government didn't just ask for bids from private contractors.  It made things happen.

Would private enterprise have persevered through the Apollo 1 spacecraft fire on February 21, 1967?  The mission never flew.  A cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 on January 27 killed all three crew members – Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee – and destroyed the command module.  With profit-minded CEOs weighing profits versus costs and liabilities, the Apollo program may have died that day.

While China lays plans for the first permanent lunar base, we entrust our space exploration to the eccentric Elon Musk, whose SpaceX promises to give a Japanese billionaire the ultimate joyride around the Moon.  China plans to dominate space while we rely on Musk to develop an interplanetary version of Uber:

Yusaku Maezawa is the first passenger to book a trip to the moon on a SpaceX rocket.  The Japanese billionaire paid an undisclosed amount to ride on the company's new Big Falcon Rocket, which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said will cost $5 billion and could be ready as early as 2023.

Wonderful.  The death of U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, was a reminder of an era of American exceptionalism that seems to exist only, just like the U.S. Space Shuttle, in museums.  These days, we hitch rides into space on Russian spacecraft.  That Cernan's Moon walk occurred in December of 1972, some 46 years ago, is a damning reminder of how in space, thanks largely to President Obama, we are not leading at all.

The date of Eugene Cernan's last Moon walk carries with it a bit of irony, a date which may one day mark the passing of the space leadership baton from the U.S. to others, particularly China.  As Investor's Business Daily editorialized at the time:

America's final space shuttle mission ended on July 21, 2011.  On that day, Atlantis landed at its home port of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  It is there still, on display and out of commission.  Prototype shuttle Enterprise is on display in New York at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum after having been towed there on a barge up the Hudson River.

In 2009, astronauts were ferried to the International Space Station aboard the shuttle Endeavor and were tasked with fixing a Russian-built space commode.  They accomplished this feat on the 40th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 moon landing.  Now if our astronauts need to fix the plumbing, they have to hitch rides aboard Russian spacecraft.  The cost is more than $50,000 for each cab ride.

It is ironic that the last manned mission to the moon, NASA's Apollo 17, left the lunar surface on the same day in 1972 as China's lunar lander arrived in 2013 – on Dec. 14.  The last man to have walked on the moon, Eugene Cernan, told Fox News' Neil Cavuto something in 2011 that still holds true today:

"We don't have the capability today to put a human being in space of any kind, shape or form, which is absolutely, totally unacceptable when we got the greatest flying machine in the world sitting down at Kennedy in a garage there with nothing to do."

The vast expertise and space exploration infrastructure we developed suddenly vanished as an administration bent on expunging American exceptionalism from the face of the Earth abandoned space.  The talent pool was dispersed along with the experience and knowledge gained, and the vast engineering infrastructure either atrophied or moved on to other things as NASA engaged in Muslim outreach and climate-monitoring instead of reaching for the stars.

Great hopes were held out for the privatization of space and still are, but we seem to have gone back to square one.  Private companies seem to be a relearning from the same mistakes already made, trying to develop the knowledge and capabilities we had but threw away.

Eugene Cernan told Fox News's Neil Cavuto after the Virgin Galactic crash of Spaceship Two that private space flight, while doing yeoman work we've largely abandoned, so far has not been all that private, calling it "NASA's new way of spending money," reliant as it is on government facilities and Russian rocket engines.  He bemoaned the dispersal of the talent and expertise we developed over the decades, forcing private firms to repeat the same mistakes.

The massive Saturn V that sent American astronauts and their Apollo spacecraft to the lunar landscape is now a museum piece, as is our space shuttle fleet. As Investor's Business Daily editorialized as America under Obama abandoned space:

Space and access to it is important for scientific, commercial and military reasons.  For the U.S. to be dependent on others, a situation resulting from Obama's decision in 2011 to cancel both the space shuttle program and a promising follow-up, Constellation, is a national tragedy.  Private companies such as Space-X are trying to fill the void but have a long way to go.

The Obama administration abandoned the follow-on Constellation program, which was to return Americans to the Moon by 2020.  Instead, that is the target date for Chinese astronauts romping on the lunar surface.  Cernan was one of three astronauts to write an open letter to Obama condemning our abandonment of space:

In an open letter to President Obama, Apollo commanders Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan and Jim Lovell blasted the decision to cancel NASA's back-to-the-moon program, Constellation, to focus on mundane tasks.  "For the United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly a half a century, to be without carriage to low earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature," they said.

President Trump wants to return us to space, but at the moment, we remain a nation that has declined from one whose president, John F. Kennedy once proudly pledged: "We choose to go to the moon."  Right now, we can only hope that someday, maybe the Chinese will give us a lift.

Daniel John Sobieski is a freelance writer whose pieces have appeared in Investor's Business Daily, Human Events, Reason Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times among other publications.

It has been nearly 50 years since an American became the first human being to walk on the Moon and plant the U.S. flag.  Judging from the successful landing of China's Chang'e-4 probe on the far side of the Moon and China's ambitious plans, including military ones, it may not be that long before a Chinese astronaut picks up that flag and brings it back to us.

We have our own plans, to be sure, and that includes President Trump's already underway U.S. Space Force, yet we still are paying the price for the overreliance on private enterprise to do what needs to be done in space for both national security and, yes, national pride.

Privatization has a role to play in space exploration, hopefully a more robust role than supplying the International Space Station with toilet paper using reusable booster rockets.  Yet the fact that it has been 50 years since we planted our flag on the lunar surface is a telling indictment of privatization of space.  We should already have a base on the Moon getting the guest rooms ready or the Chinese instead of hitching rides into space with the Russkis.

SpaceX has done nice things, if you consider reinventing the wheel instead of building on past success.  When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, we already had a heavy-lift booster in the Saturn V, a lunar spacecraft in the Apollo, with follow-on spacecraft and a reusable transport, the Space Shuttle in the pipeline.

Some people are free marketers warning of how government can muck things up, and it can, but when we needed an atomic bomb or a lunar landing, government didn't just ask for bids from private contractors.  It made things happen.

Would private enterprise have persevered through the Apollo 1 spacecraft fire on February 21, 1967?  The mission never flew.  A cabin fire during a launch rehearsal test at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station Launch Complex 34 on January 27 killed all three crew members – Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee – and destroyed the command module.  With profit-minded CEOs weighing profits versus costs and liabilities, the Apollo program may have died that day.

While China lays plans for the first permanent lunar base, we entrust our space exploration to the eccentric Elon Musk, whose SpaceX promises to give a Japanese billionaire the ultimate joyride around the Moon.  China plans to dominate space while we rely on Musk to develop an interplanetary version of Uber:

Yusaku Maezawa is the first passenger to book a trip to the moon on a SpaceX rocket.  The Japanese billionaire paid an undisclosed amount to ride on the company's new Big Falcon Rocket, which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said will cost $5 billion and could be ready as early as 2023.

Wonderful.  The death of U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, was a reminder of an era of American exceptionalism that seems to exist only, just like the U.S. Space Shuttle, in museums.  These days, we hitch rides into space on Russian spacecraft.  That Cernan's Moon walk occurred in December of 1972, some 46 years ago, is a damning reminder of how in space, thanks largely to President Obama, we are not leading at all.

The date of Eugene Cernan's last Moon walk carries with it a bit of irony, a date which may one day mark the passing of the space leadership baton from the U.S. to others, particularly China.  As Investor's Business Daily editorialized at the time:

America's final space shuttle mission ended on July 21, 2011.  On that day, Atlantis landed at its home port of NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  It is there still, on display and out of commission.  Prototype shuttle Enterprise is on display in New York at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum after having been towed there on a barge up the Hudson River.

In 2009, astronauts were ferried to the International Space Station aboard the shuttle Endeavor and were tasked with fixing a Russian-built space commode.  They accomplished this feat on the 40th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 moon landing.  Now if our astronauts need to fix the plumbing, they have to hitch rides aboard Russian spacecraft.  The cost is more than $50,000 for each cab ride.

It is ironic that the last manned mission to the moon, NASA's Apollo 17, left the lunar surface on the same day in 1972 as China's lunar lander arrived in 2013 – on Dec. 14.  The last man to have walked on the moon, Eugene Cernan, told Fox News' Neil Cavuto something in 2011 that still holds true today:

"We don't have the capability today to put a human being in space of any kind, shape or form, which is absolutely, totally unacceptable when we got the greatest flying machine in the world sitting down at Kennedy in a garage there with nothing to do."

The vast expertise and space exploration infrastructure we developed suddenly vanished as an administration bent on expunging American exceptionalism from the face of the Earth abandoned space.  The talent pool was dispersed along with the experience and knowledge gained, and the vast engineering infrastructure either atrophied or moved on to other things as NASA engaged in Muslim outreach and climate-monitoring instead of reaching for the stars.

Great hopes were held out for the privatization of space and still are, but we seem to have gone back to square one.  Private companies seem to be a relearning from the same mistakes already made, trying to develop the knowledge and capabilities we had but threw away.

Eugene Cernan told Fox News's Neil Cavuto after the Virgin Galactic crash of Spaceship Two that private space flight, while doing yeoman work we've largely abandoned, so far has not been all that private, calling it "NASA's new way of spending money," reliant as it is on government facilities and Russian rocket engines.  He bemoaned the dispersal of the talent and expertise we developed over the decades, forcing private firms to repeat the same mistakes.

The massive Saturn V that sent American astronauts and their Apollo spacecraft to the lunar landscape is now a museum piece, as is our space shuttle fleet. As Investor's Business Daily editorialized as America under Obama abandoned space:

Space and access to it is important for scientific, commercial and military reasons.  For the U.S. to be dependent on others, a situation resulting from Obama's decision in 2011 to cancel both the space shuttle program and a promising follow-up, Constellation, is a national tragedy.  Private companies such as Space-X are trying to fill the void but have a long way to go.

The Obama administration abandoned the follow-on Constellation program, which was to return Americans to the Moon by 2020.  Instead, that is the target date for Chinese astronauts romping on the lunar surface.  Cernan was one of three astronauts to write an open letter to Obama condemning our abandonment of space:

In an open letter to President Obama, Apollo commanders Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan and Jim Lovell blasted the decision to cancel NASA's back-to-the-moon program, Constellation, to focus on mundane tasks.  "For the United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly a half a century, to be without carriage to low earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature," they said.

President Trump wants to return us to space, but at the moment, we remain a nation that has declined from one whose president, John F. Kennedy once proudly pledged: "We choose to go to the moon."  Right now, we can only hope that someday, maybe the Chinese will give us a lift.

Daniel John Sobieski is a freelance writer whose pieces have appeared in Investor's Business Daily, Human Events, Reason Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times among other publications.