The Dragon in Flight: Why Space Could Belong to China in the 21st Century

It is no surprise that China is seldom out of the headlines these days. Over the past thirty years, it has matched unprecedented economic growth […]

It is no surprise that China is seldom out of the headlines these days. Over the past thirty years, it has matched unprecedented economic growth with a major military buildup and ever-closer ties to the developing world, becoming the world’s second-largest economy and largest exporter. It is widely feted as a potential superpower and the first real rival to American power since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers expects China to surpass the United States economically by 2030.[1] The Chinese communist government has also grown increasingly territorial, intimidating neighbouring states such as Japan and Vietnam with its trade-war economics and suggestive military exercises.

One often-overlooked aspect of China’s rise is its great focus on science and technology. Though still years behind America and Western Europe, it has been closing the distance rapidly through a mixture of investment and education. 10,000 Chinese received engineering PhDs in 2009, compared to around 8,000 Americans; the Chinese government claims that half a million more receive bachelor’s degrees in science and mathematics every year.[2] This large pool of educated workers has been complemented by enormous state investment in research and development, particularly in renewable energy. In 2010 alone, China spent nearly US$49 billion on green technology research, more than any other country.[3] Chinese firms such as Huawei and Lenovo have become world leaders in computing and mobile communications, markets which were previously the dominion of American and Japanese companies. China has furthermore worried Western nations with its rapid acquisition of new military technologies; its first stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20, made its maiden flight in January 2011.

However, China’s technological ambitions extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere.  Though a relative newcomer to spaceflight (its first astronaut flew in 2003) China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) now operates one of the world’s most active space programs, having conducted 18 successful orbital launches in 2011 alone. China has a far stronger recent launch record than neighbouring Russia: just one Chinese orbital launch failed in 2011, compared to four Russian launches. China is also self-reliant for its manned missions, unlike the Americans, who have been dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station (ISS) since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in July 2011.

Additionally, China’s ambitions in orbit are far more concrete than those of its spacefaring rivals. There are no definite plans for the re-use of the ISS and its modules after its retirement in the 2020s; if such an agreement cannot be made, America, Russia, Japan and the European Union will then be left without a working space station. China, however, intends to have at least one large laboratory outpost in orbit by 2022, and even launched its first space station module, Tiangong-1, in September 2011. Shortly after, China successfully conducted an autonomous orbital docking – a vital support capability for any long-term orbital station – and will dispatch at least one human crew to Tiangong-1 in 2012.[4] Tiangong-1 itself is expected to be the basis for a future class of robotic resupply spacecraft, similar to the Russian Progress spacecraft. In December 2011, China launched the tenth satellite of its Beidou positioning constellation, opening up a lucrative domestic market for location-based services and granting it increasing independence from the ageing American GPS network.[5]

Nor does China intend to ignore more distant real estate. Its Chang’e 1 and 2 lunar satellites, launched in 2007 and 2010 respectively, have generated one of the most detailed 3D maps of the Moon, and will be followed in 2013 by the Chang’e 3 lunar rover. Sample-return missions are planned for later in the decade, and China plans to land astronauts on the Moon by 2025 – a significant ambition, seeing as the United States, its most powerful rival, abandoned its plans for manned lunar exploration in 2010. China has also set its sights on Mars: its first Martian satellite, Yinghuo-1, was launched in November 2011, although it was lost when its mated Russian spacecraft, Phobos-Grunt, malfunctioned after launch. It is doubtful that China will be discouraged by this mishap.

Of course, China’s rapid investment in the space sector has led to concerns being voiced in the West over the potential military applications of such technologies. The Beidou network is widely feared to be a dual-use system, providing both commercial location services and guidance for China’s cruise missiles, which are aimed in great numbers at Taiwan. China is also one of only three nations to successfully develop anti-satellite (satellite-destroying) missiles; in 2007, it destroyed a weather satellite with a kinetic missile, sparking denunciations from the United States and other nations. If China continues to develop its orbital presence, it may gain a major strategic advantage over regional rivals such as Taiwan and Japan – and possibly even the Western powers.

Is the Chinese domination of space a plausible scenario for the 21st century? Perhaps not. Technologically, it is still playing catch-up with the United States, and will continue to do so for at least a decade. It is worth remembering, after all, that NASA developed space stations and conducted a moon landing over 40 years ago, while China is only now reaching a comparable level of advancement. The Beidou network is still under development, and will not be globally operational until 2020. Even if the ISS is retired without a successor at the end of this decade, it will still have provided over two decades of orbital research and invaluable manned spaceflight experience – something Chinese astronauts will struggle to match until the Tiangong program reaches fruition in the 2020s. And while China’s lunar ambitions are impressive, it has yet made few ventures into the wider solar system, while American, Russian and European probes and space telescopes have dominated space science for nearly half a century.

Nonetheless, China is advancing more rapidly in the field of spaceflight than any other nation, and benefits from a reliable and independent manned launch capability. The United States, by contrast, will lack the ability to launch its own astronauts without Russian or commercial help until its planned Space Launch System enters service around 2016. No other nation has a lunar exploration program as well-planned as China’s, and it is also the only country with a demonstrably functional independent space station project. It is also worth noting the economic and technical constraints suffered by China’s rivals: NASA faces major budget cuts and Russia’s Roscosmos has been plagued by launch failures, while the CNSA enjoys steady state funding. As China’s economic rise continues, the demand from domestic and foreign firms for its satellites will further spur development. Moreover, the Chinese government may – as its American counterpart has recently done – encourage the development of private manned spaceflight companies. This will drive down launch costs and open up lucrative new markets such as space tourism and microgravity manufacturing (production of goods for space-related purposes). Whether the 21st Century will be a “Chinese century” remains uncertain, but it is highly probable that China will play a leading, if not dominant, role in orbit and beyond.

[1] BBC News Online, “China ‘to overtake US and dominate trade by 2030’”, 24 March 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2011.

[2], “Desperately seeking math and science majors”, 29 July 2010. Retrieved 28 December 2011.

[3] People’s Daily Online, “China tops world’s renewable energy investment: study”, 6 July 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2011.

[4], “China tests 1st space station module for 2011 launch”, 17 August 2010. Retrieved 14 January 2012.

[5] Christian Science Monitor, “Great Leap Forward for China’s military? China gets GPS”, 28 December 2011. Retrieved 29 December 2011.

About Joe Krikler