China Is Winning the Space Race

Don't laugh. In less than a decade, Beijing will likely be the world's most important player in outer space.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

On June 11, in the flat and featureless Gobi Desert, China took a giant leap for mankind — or at least a symbolic step toward space dominance — when it sent three astronauts into space for 15 days. With the past as a guide, both that launch and the 2010 launch of the Chang’e 2 unmanned lunar orbiter are technologically unimpressive. Shift the focus to the present and they are merely unsettling. But look to the future, and they are unmistakable warning signs that China may surpass the United States and Russia to become the world’s preeminent spacefaring power.

Yes, launching a three-seat space capsule and docking it with a temporary space station is straight out of the bell-bottom jeans and wide-collar era: it merely replicates what Americans achieved in 1973 with their Skylab 2 mission. With only one main chamber, the diminutive Tiangong 1 space station is far less impressive and barely one-tenth the size of Skylab, not to mention the even larger, elaborately segmented structure of modules, docking ports, and solar arrays that make up the International Space Station (ISS), the largest artificial object in Earth orbit.

Why worry that the Chinese are exploiting 40-year-old technology to send a few men and women into space? Won’t it take them decades to catch up? Won’t they be daunted by the same engineering and medical scientific barriers that have stalled their predecessors in low Earth orbit, like damage to spacecraft from micrometeorite impacts, and damage to human bodies from exposure to cosmic radiation and weightlessness? And isn’t the space race dead anyway?

Not necessarily. The Chinese have not only matched many of the achievements of the Americans and Russians in space — and in far less time than it took their predecessors to reach the same milestones — they did so while avoiding their biggest mistakes. For example, rather than investing in customized, expensive space shuttles like both Washington and Moscow banked on, the Chinese are using reliable, mass-producible spacecraft, like the Soyuz capsule. 

And the Chinese space program enjoys some important advantages over its U.S. rival.  As the recent surge in missions attests, the Chinese space program likely enjoys generous and stable government funding — though the exact amount is unknown. (Meanwhile, NASA’s budget as a percent of the federal budget has fallen from 4.41 percent in 1966 to 0.48 percent in 2012.) And the Chinese space program has the support of a unified Chinese leadership: China’s President Xi Jinping won’t be shutting down the Shenzhou missions to diminish the legacy of his predecessors, as President Richard Nixon did by ending manned lunar exploration.

The United States may have given up on the space dream, but it still burns brightly in the Chinese psyche. Among the most important — if unquantifiable — resources Beijing possesses is an extraordinary sense of historical grievance. Chinese nationalists are conscious of almost two centuries of national humiliation at the hands of other great powers, attributable to Chinese military technological backwardness. Anxiety about technology transfers prompted the Pentagon to reject Chinese participation in the ISS, a decision that has drawn little objection from the other 14 participating countries — and of which some Chinese nationalists are keenly aware. The United States and its allies are even encircling China in orbital space, or so the thinking goes.

Shenzhou 10, however, represents more than a pricey technological ornament for nationalists with a chip on their shoulders. China now has what the United States lacks: a reliable manned spacecraft. The United States finds itself in the preposterous situation of depending on Russia to transport personnel and much of the cargo to and from the ISS. Underfunding and poor planning means that the same nation that once landed men on the Moon can no longer launch anyone into orbit. The United States’ best hope is that the private firm SpaceX, which NASA has contracted to supply cargo to the ISS, will eventually be able to transport U.S. astronauts as well. Shenzhou 10 is a reminder that for at least the next few years, space is only accessible via a Russian or Chinese rocket. No wonder that astronauts from the European Space Agency are learning Chinese. 

If Beijing is intent on besting the West, a manned landing on Mars — extremely risky but possible with today’s technology — could help secure China’s place as the foremost spacefaring power. Establishing a permanent manned Moon base, however, would be a more attractive goal — and one that allows China to minimize the scientific and medical barriers present in low-Earth orbit. The spectacle of second-tier spacefaring states lining up to request permission to station personnel or supply components for the base would be an enormous boost to China’s status. And it’s not all that ridiculously far-fetched: a permanent Moon base would probably only cost something comparable to that of the ISS –approximately $5 billion a year. Granted, the Moon is farther away than the Earth’s orbit, but most of the fuel used in transporting people and materials to space is for freeing them from the Earth’s gravity. Additionally, the Moon possesses ice, which can be turned in water and oxygen — resources which have to be hauled up from Earth for a space station. In any case, excluding Americans from this moon base would be revenge served very, very cold. 

But there is much more to be gained from a Moon base than satisfying honor. Remember that manned space missions are an escape from a perceived geopolitical encirclement, comparable to that felt by German political and military elites in the late 19th century. Berlin’s solution was to build a blue-water navy and colonize parts of Africa. Establishing a Moon base would not only represent an escape from perceived terrestrial encirclement, but also be the effective occupation necessary to assert territorial sovereignty in international law. Granted, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty expressly prohibits extraterrestrial annexations. However, if China emerges as the leading spacefaring power, it will have the opportunity and motive to rewrite the international legal regime for space. In its territorial disputes back on Earth, Beijing insists on its own interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. What would prevent it from being even more assertive if it becomes the only spacefaring power with boots on the regolith?

The next big milestone is China’s plan to establish its own space station by 2020 — which happens to be the same year that the International Space Station is scheduled to be scrapped and sunk into the ocean. In the long run, Shenzhou 10 may determine the terms under which the spacefaring powers compete on the final frontier. One of many ancient names for China is Tianchao — the Celestial Empire. Shenzhou 10 may be pointing the way toward its creation.

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