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How should America feel about China's space ambitions?

Posted by Jason Davis

14-10-2016 6:00 CDT

Topics: Chinese human spaceflight

This Sunday, two Chinese astronauts are expected to launch into space. Their Shenzhou 11 spacecraft will blast off from the Gobi desert and spend a couple days chasing down Tiangong-2, the country's new 10-meter-long, 3-meter-wide prototype space station. After docking, the crew is expected to remain aboard for about a month, carrying out various science experiments and technology demonstrations. 

Next year, in April, a Chinese cargo freighter will autonomously dock with Tiangong-2 and refuel it, similar to the way Russian Progress spacecraft are used to top off the tanks at the International Space Station.

These will arguably be China's most ambitious human spaceflight missions to date. Yet when compared with the long history of similar achievements by the United States and Russia, they are modest.

In the space community, we are prone to think that the pursuit of science and exploration rises above borders and politics. But in reality, China and the United States have a complicated relationship. Considering that, how should America feel about China's space ambitions? 

That was the subject of a recent House of Representatives space subcommittee hearing titled "Are We Losing the Space Race to China?" The title of the hearing implies the goals of the two programs are similar enough that we can even call it a race at all.

What, exactly, are China's space goals? Is there really a race? And if the United States loses, is that anything to worry about?

Soaring Shenzhou

Xinhau News Agency

Soaring Shenzhou
Shenzhou 10 soars into the sky atop a Long March 2F rocket, carrying Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, Zhang Xiaoguang and Wang Yaping.

China's human spaceflight goals

Since launching its first astronaut in 2003, China has made steady human spaceflight progress. The country's first small space station, Tiangong-1, was launched in 2011 and visited by a crew of astronauts in 2012.

Both Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2 are testbeds meant to pave the way for a more ambitious, three-module station. The first piece of that orbital complex is scheduled to be launched in 2018 atop a new rocket, the Long March 5. 

The station would be fully operational around 2020, and be paired with a souped-up space telescope larger than Hubble that would float nearby, giving astronauts easy access for repairs and maintenance.

As for sending humans anywhere else, China's plans are vague, but reports have begun coalescing around a possible 2030 lunar landing.

China's science goals

China's robotic spaceflight program is making even more ambitious strides. 

Next year, the country plans to return a sample from the far side of the moon, which would be a first for any nation. In 2018 or 2019, a lander and rover might also be sent to the far side, which would be another first, and require the country to deploy a communications relay satellite.

In 2020, China hopes to send a probe and rover to Mars, which coincides with NASA's plan to send a successor to the Curiosity rover there. That rover, currently dubbed Mars 2020, will collect and cache samples for a future return mission.

NASA has yet to finalize how it will retrieve those samples and get them back to Earth. China, meanwhile, is making plans of its own to launch a Mars sample return mission in 2030

China's mission would use a yet-to-be-built, super heavy lift rocket named the Long March 9. The rocket could be capable of lifting around 130 metric tons to low-Earth orbit, which would put it on par with the enhanced version of NASA's Space Launch System. (The 70-ton SLS variant is expected to debut in 2018.)

Is there a race?

As far as space exploration is concerned, then, the only common goal between NASA and China is the Mars sample return mission. Assuming a third party like SpaceX does not accelerate the process, there could truly be a scientific race to return the first sample from another planet.

Aside from that, the International Space Station will remain in orbit through at least 2024, ensuring at least a four-year crossover period with China's station. Depending on the long-term fate of the ISS, there could indeed be a day when only Chinese astronauts inhabit low-Earth orbit. NASA, meanwhile, might be moving out to cislunar space by then as part of its Journey to Mars plans—assuming the next president and Congress keeps the agency on its current course.

It remains an open question whether or not an international or private sector partner will step forward to work with NASA on leveraging American cislunar activities to make a final push for the surface. That could set the stage for a 2030s, return-to-the-moon international space race, where the U.S. provides a supporting role for private companies or international allies.

By then, China will likely have gained the prestige of becoming the first country to operate a suite of first-time missions from the lunar farside. All told, it will be an impressive slate of achievements—but mostly in areas where the U.S. is not directly competing.

The crew of Shenzhou 10

Xinhau News Agency

The crew of Shenzhou 10
Shenzhou 10 crewmembers Wang Yaping (left), Zhang Xiaoguang (center) and Nie Haisheng (right) attend a "setting out" ceremony prior to launch on June 11, 2013.

Did U.S. policies accelerate China's space program?

For many U.S. lawmakers, not participating in a space race may be as bad as losing one.

Rep. Brian Babin, the Texas republican who chairs the House space subcommittee, opened last month's "Are We Losing the Space Race to China?" hearing with a tirade on the Obama administration, and its decision to cancel NASA's return-to-the-moon Constellation program in 2010.

"This vacuum of leadership … facilitated the ascendance of China as a leading space-faring nation," Babin said. "China has capitalized on this administration's weakness by offering partnerships with other nations, like a return to the moon, which the U.S. chose to walk away from."

In the hearing—as well as in an email to The Planetary Society in response to our Horizon Goal series—Babin pointed out the Obama administration slashed Constellation funding in 2009 prior to an independent review that deemed the program, among other things, underfunded. (The review report addresses this charge on page 59 by pointing out that while the first Obama budget indeed cut Constellation dollars, the program was already falling short of original funding projections.)

For Babin and others, then, the rise of China's space program is coupled tightly with perceived policy missteps by the Obama administration.

But China's current spaceflight aspirations, including the goal of a permanent space station, have been around much longer. And that was when the possibility of bilateral cooperation with the United States still existed; since 2011, the House of Representatives has inserted language in NASA funding bills prohibiting such a possibility. Right now, as far as the United States is concerned, China has to go it alone.

How China's space program benefits the country

Dennis Shea, who chairs the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said during the hearing that the line between China's military and civilian space activities was much blurrier than that of the United States.

"China's military controls the majority of the country's space assets and operations," Shea said. "Even apparently civilian projects such as space exploration can directly support the development of PLA (People's Liberation Army, the armed forces of China's communist party) space, counterspace and conventional capabilities."

Mark Stokes, the executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a non-profit Asia-Pacific security issues think tank, agreed.

"This is part of a conscious policy referred to these days as MCF—Military Civilian Fusion, for short," he said.

To what extent this is actually happening is less clear, given China's lack of transparency. But many defense experts point to the country's anti-satellite capabilities, which have been on the rise since a 2007 test that destroyed a defunct weather satellite and created a massive cloud of dangerous space debris. China has since conducted similar, debris-free, tests.

Beyond military benefits, China's burgeoning space program bolsters the ruling communist party's domestic legitimacy and international prestige. Like NASA, the program also supports spinoff technologies, which improves China's ability to compete in the global commercial space market. 

All of that is beneficial to the country's economy, said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

"The Chinese see an advancing space capability almost like a locomotive that will pull along other parts of the Chinese economy," he said.

Uniqueness challenged

Tensions between the U.S. and China certainly exist. And China continues to be make worldwide watch lists for human rights violations.

But the narrative that the two countries are engaged in a space race akin to that of the U.S. and former Soviet Union does not entirely fit. Why, then, do some American lawmakers consider China's space ambitions such a threat? 

According to Cheng, the real answer might lie in the fact that for almost half a century, the U.S. has stood alone in being able to claim the most prestigious feat of all time: landing people on another world and returning them safely to Earth.

"The reality is, the day the Chinese are able to [land humans on the moon] is the day that American uniqueness will be openly challenged," Cheng said. "And Chinese prestige will be placed on the same level as that of the United States."

See other posts from October 2016


Or read more blog entries about: Chinese human spaceflight


oneshot_me: 10/14/2016 04:18 CDT

I think they are doing it to shoot down everything we already have up there and on the ground

michaelthompsonottawa: 10/15/2016 09:43 CDT

In the early days of TPS, we advocated for cooperation in space between the USA and the (then) Soviet Union. The ISS is an example of what such cooperation can achieve. Imagine the possibilities if the USA and China (and Russia, the Europeans, etc.) worked together. The TPS could be a voice to start the conversation to make this happen. We were that voice in the past. Why aren't we now?

analysis: 10/15/2016 02:13 CDT

Lets just be clear, China is advancing some component technologies here that US has never had, such as refueling large spacecraft on orbit. Similarly, components of Chang'e lunar probes have had technological bits that are ahead of what US has yet put to space, such as vision guided landing. It is a mistake to assume that China is substantially behind technologically in space, and they certainly are iterating on these technologies at sustainable cadence.

Red: 10/16/2016 03:41 CDT

I believe China's taking a different approach from either the USA or the Soviet Union. It seems to be going, overall, "slow-and-steady" while doing minor goals the USA neglected to try, such as landing on the Far Side of the Moon. I don't think they would risk their crews to land anywhere yet, but I could see them attempting Mars Sample Return before anything can retrieve the Mars 2020 Rover's caches if they truly wanted to beat NASA. What makes them scary is they may be smarter than the Soviets and more unified than NASA.

RTA2: 10/16/2016 06:41 CDT

Red - They absolutely are smarter than Russia's space program, and... more unified than NASA?!? I don't think there are many organizations on this planet *less* unified than NASA of late. What is China's space goal? Simply put: The future. Their Lunar program is *very* clearly aimed at resource exploitation. The bulk of their sensors and probes are surveys going after what the most valuable and necessary natural resources are and where. Their moon missions are blatantly resource oriented. Further, the bulk of those technologies with these orbiting stations/etc. seem destined for the exact same ends: Launching the means, establishing towing/vehicular meet-ups, in order to mine asteroids for resources. Natural resources are where the $$$ is in space - build towards that goal, and you build a future leading the way for mankind in space. Non-resource missions and objectives will come alongside with legitimate scientific investigation, but secondary to the gold mine of space. Their space telescope planned for? Great to follow up on Hubble, but even greater to detect/characterize resource rich targets. How can we feel confident this is 100% China's goal for space? The missions speak for themselves - yet all the more, China on Earth. The South China Sea..? Building entire artificial islands, just to lay claim to vital resources? This shapes and guides China's whole vision, everywhere - as on Earth, so too, in space. Never mind the $$ returns that await such lofty ambitions, many rare Earth resources are rapidly running out! Come that day all too soon, Space will be the only place to obtain such things. Those resources will become even more insanely valuable, and if only one project exists to tap those resources, a literal stranglehold will transpire where anyone who wants to look toward the future of human development must pay China's price. China has exclusive access to those same goods, ensuring they've an insurmountable advantage in technology and industrialization

RTA2: 10/16/2016 06:42 CDT

No one else will have what they have, and what they have is required to "advance" further. In so doing, like Europe in the America's, China will determine the future of mankind. Humanity will speak Mandarin in space, whilst Chinese policies and mindsets will rule over so many women and men leaving our world behind in decades, century and millennia to come. Remember Firefly...? Yeah, our future is going to look a *LOT* like that thanks to NASA/US ineptitude. What of treaties forbidding such resource exploitation in space, reserving it for a scientific exploration? What of them! Who is to enforce such laws, when no one else can even reach there to try and enforce them - this, never mind having any sufficient reason to do so, not losing anything as they have no presence at all in space to begin with, making the potential costs versus pay offs of battling China head to head over then ancient international celestial body treaties a fools errand at best. We should be doing what China is now doing. We should be opening up access to space, paving the path forward, by going after the one thing where such insane investments as space requires actually pays off and even provides exponential returns... by going after something we will absolutely *need* if we are to continue moving forward in another couple decades as many resources dry up and go all but entirely extinct on Earth. Politicians who say, "Hey, we *are* going to burn all your tax dollars in space! But, guess what, rather than "knowledge" or "data", we are looking at returns several times over the establishing costs required for that infrastructure! We will rake in trillions from only a handful of asteroids or lunar bases mined properly. It will offer us things otherwise impossible without those resources, alongside the ever important $$ and power/leadership at being, not just a front runner, but the sole party doing so." Those politicians no longer are fighting a losing battle against the tide of public opinion

RTA2: 10/16/2016 06:44 CDT

("Don't spend my Social Security quite literally burning dollars in space!"), but rather find that public support swelling on their side to move forward in the progress of mankind and our place in space. The fact we are where we are, while China's policies, intentions and goals aren't just plain as day, but becoming ever more rapidly wildly successful... it is suicidally depressing to a space enthusiast. We *should* be leading the way and seeking to join with China and pool our resources, rather, our space program is defunct and we spurn any thought of working with the Chinese - so too ensuring that their own efforts are doubled, as they go it alone and feel a confrontational view coming from established players in space. Then, the fact that not only is nothing changing at NASA/the US, but rather, getting worse as time goes on while China becomes more capable and more determined yet...? That no leaders or politicians step up to lead us into the future, out of this quagmire at present, nor even do any signal any alarm/discuss just what China *is* doing or planning in space? And no outside organizations are taking up the baton, to try and rally for something... anything... better than what we now know? Not even Europe, nor Roscosmos, India too - nobody is doing anything when it comes to space, to continuing the millennia old human tradition of expanding ourbboundaries and deepening our knowledge? That an overwhelming likelihood of life beckons us on Titan, Europa, Enceladus or elsewhere, such as to answer the single biggest question in all of human history necessitating but only some sub-billion dollar mission... and even *that* can't get funded or merely designed for anywhere past paper and pen? I think we must be resigned to a Chinese future, while despairing and despising ourselves and our leadership for letting such come to pass; dropping the ball on the centuries and lives who worked tirelessly to get us here, only to see us turn to more selfish and

RTA2: 10/16/2016 06:44 CDT

and shortsighted desires. At the same exact time, being incredibly grateful that there is indeed at least *one* body with the resources needed and mindset, determination and vision to carry that out, ensuring that there will be a future for man in space - it just won't be a Western one. Sad, resigned space rant for the day: /end

RTA2: 10/16/2016 06:57 CDT

Actually, this reminded me of a letter I wrote to my congressperson a few years ago... portions of that seem apt here, and better summarizes the facts (apologies for the insane length/post #... but this is a critical issue.) With the technology and reach of mankind advancing with ever increasing rapidity, the economic exploitation of outer space will arrive within my own lifetime - something the Chinese now aim for with every aspect of their space program. With this they seek to lay claim to the Moon's valuable caches of natural resources, a trove of wealth that will begin being tapped this coming decade. Thanks largely to advances in revolutionary technologies like 3D printing, their acquirement will soon become possible, practical and affordable. China's policy here is only a natural progression and expansion of their terrestrial ones regarding natural resources. So far every mission to date has been designed solely with this objective in mind, a fact they don't even attempt to conceal. There is a reason their space program doesn't include *any* outer planetary probes, crafts to study the Sun, space telescopes or a single example of the scientific missions that NASA, the ESA and all other space agencies in the recent past have been hailed for; why India's nascent program aimed for glory with an unmanned orbiting probe to Mars this past year, but a more capable China pursues only the Moon and human spaceflight. In this, China seeks that which propels them to power and prosperity here on Earth in recent years; the very thing that brings them to the brink of conflict over every pebble above sea level in the Pacific, as with their recent unilateral declaration of an 'Aerial Identification Zone' - approprating resources by way of establishing zones of exclusivity. And make no mistake, there are an immense amount of riches to be found beyond our planet. There are countless rare earth elements we've depleted our world's supply of, but where almost unlimited

RTA2: 10/16/2016 06:58 CDT

amounts exist on nearby celestial bodies. There's also many things essentially nonexistent on Earth, but abundant on the Moon - like Helium-3, which has unique atomic properties that make it irreplaceable by anything else and costing as much as $2,000 per *liter* today! In the years to come it is believed to be unmatched for its applications with nuclear fusion energy, yet even now it has many other uses, including with life saving medical technologies. Clearly, with such excessive costs for such miniscule amounts, the wealth waiting on the moon is staggering and this value will dramatically hasten mankind's lunar ambitions. Unfortunately we must shoulder much of the blame for China's isolationist and unilateral space initiative. By precluding any Chinese participation in the International Space Station, as well as a blanket prohibition against any cooperation or sharing by NASA with their Chinese counterparts, one can easily understand why China has taken the stance outlined above. Despite our policy having been made with the best of intentions - considering China's space program being intertwined with their military - whether one supports it or not has been rendered moot. The damage is now done, with what originally arose as a response to being locked out of the ISS evolving as China realized the wealth available on the Moon, and then reinforced by the utter lack of any competition over it. Here again we are at least partially responsible as China saw a NASA in decline, realizing they had the stage to themselves. As Russia is the only other sovereign nation with independent access to space, today there exist none who are capable of enforcing existing UN space treaties - or merely any powers with enough interests and investment in space to make it worth the political, economic and, quite possibly, security costs such confrontation would undoubtedly bring. A NASA so reduced, unable to even pursue future unmanned probes, means it is an agency irrefutably incapable

RTA2: 10/16/2016 06:59 CDT

of resuming independent human spaceflight - certainly not when these are among the most challenging and costly of all endeavors, requiring both rocketry that's complex, reliant and safe as well as the vehicles to deliver and return our national heroes from the heavens above. Meanwhile, China has manned spaceflight capabilities this very moment - and so China can win by default, while the hope for a better tommorow with a strong and prosperous America further fades away. I plead that we not allow this to happen, not while we still have time to prevent it. Given the immense role space will play in our specie's future in the years and decades to come, this single issue represents a concern without equal for matters as diverse as national security and defense, economic prosperity, global influence and power, technological capabilities and workforce superiority, as well as countless others. We play a most dangerous game in forestalling a strong, focused national space program until public will demands it as China begins to plant flags on lunar terrain; when the national and political atmosphere resembles the space race of the 1960s with China taking Russia's place. By that point in time China will be so far ahead, and we so far behind, that there will no longer be any guarantee - or even likelihood - of success in halting their ambitions. We will no longer have an experienced engineers core, and either require people long retired working off blue prints a century old, or those without any expertise whatsoever attempting the unknown and impossible. This is the true long term cost of NASA's dismemberment - that talent pool, once gone, will take decades to rebuild... regardless of our need or urgency. Although China is admittedly a late comer to space, they've advanced rapidly while we have instead regressed just as quickly. They will exceed us imminently - and, in light of NASA's current state, one might argue they already have. Once China stakes its claim with

RTA2: 10/16/2016 07:00 CDT

countless permanent stations over premium lunar terrain, it becomes a case of too little, too late - restoring NASA at that point does nothing unless we wish to quite literally remove their grip on the moon by doing away with their sprawling lunar infrastructure. We must restore NASA's independent human spaceflight quickly so that, at the very least, one other nation has both the legitimacy and ability to confront China's imminent grab at lunar riches. Ideally we should also hope to somewhat emulate China's lunar aspirations, opening up the vast supply of resources that exist to improve the quality of all lives while guaranteeing that no one nation may lay claim to them. Rather, we should aim to achieve the multilateral effort behind the ISS, working to promote a cooperative endeavor and ensure openness and equality in space, healthy economic competition for missions, and that the resources found therein and their monetary value are shared with all who would join in the effort to acquire them instead of becoming sources of new conflicts between nations. In this day and age, few issues are as economically, technologically, scientifically and politically beneficial; bipartisan and uniting by being something we all take pride in and are in awe of; and promote such an educated, skilled and successful workforce, as does the exploration of outer space. All the better that China's goals might make larger numbers aware of the vast supplies of natural resources waiting for us that will improve lives across our entire planet, guaranteeing that our grandchildren will not suffer for our excesses in depleting the Earth's supply of many vital components to modern day - and future - living.

RTA2: 10/16/2016 07:01 CDT

*Chang'e 1 and 2 Lunar Orbiters (2007-09 and 2010-12, respectively) China's first attempt at lunar exploration, the two orbiters were largely twins whose primary difference was the first had a 200km orbit, while the second orbited only 100km above the lunar surface. While I've attempted to refrain from using direct quotes, I feel the neutrality of Wikipedia combined with the clarity of this passage offers added certainty that what I've outlined is not speculation nor exaggeration. From the Chang'e 1 article on Wikipedia ( - Accessed 1/2/14), the unaltered and complete quote of the mission objectives: The Chang'e 1 mission had four major goals: 1) Obtaining three-dimensional images of the landforms and geological structures of the lunar surface, so as to provide a reference for planned future soft landings. The orbit of Chang'e 1 around the Moon was designed to provide complete coverage, including areas near the north and south poles not covered by previous missions. 2) Analysing and mapping the abundance and distribution of various chemical elements on the lunar surface as part of an evaluation of potentially useful resources on the Moon. China hopes to extend the number of elements studied to 14 (potassium (K), thorium (Th), uranium (U), oxygen (O), silicon (Si), magnesium (Mg), aluminium (Al), calcium (Ca), tellurium (Te), titanium (Ti), sodium (Na), manganese (Mn), chromium (Cr), and lanthanum (La)),[12] compared with the 10 elements (K, U, Th, Fe (iron), Ti, O, Si, Al, Mg, and Ca)[13] previously probed by NASA's Lunar Prospector. 3) Probing the features of the lunar soil and assessing its depth, as well as the amount of helium-3 (³He) present.[12] 4) Probing the space environment between 40,000 km and 400,000 km from the Earth, recording data on the solar wind and studying the impact of solar activity on the Earth and the Moon. Therefore the Chang'e 1+2 probes were designed to achieve resource exploitation

RTA2: 10/16/2016 07:02 CDT

by: Mapping the moon, determining where caches of natural resource were, the danger of solar radioactivity between Earth and the Moon for future human missions. Most vital of all, they specifically sought out Helium-3. This has absolutely no logical purpose other than if one were intending to determine the potential for natural resource extraction. So we have the entirety of China's first real push in space with the Chang'e program entirely concerned with natural resources. Purely selfless scientific goals weren't just secondary, they didn't exist at all. This was followed up with the recent Chang'e 3 lunar rover, Yutu. The stated goals of that mission are as follows: 1) To develop knowledge and technologies for lunar landings. 2) Lunar surface topography/mapping. 3) Geological survey of the Moon. 4) Lunar surface material composition and *resource survey*. 5) Perform first ever direct measurement of structure and depth of the lunar soil as far down as 100 feet. 6) Investigate lunar crust structure and composition down to 1-2,000 feet. *This is a mission irrefutably designed with a singular purpose as a potential mining survey. Had this mission occurred on Earth, the objective would be undeniable in determining essential data prior to extracting natural resources. *A second rover, essentially a back-up and twin to Yutu, launches in 2015 to scout a secondary location for lunar resources. *Finally, Chang'e 5 will fly in 2017 and return with drilled samples of lunar soil. The probe will most likely land in a resource rich area, acquiring and returning with a sample to study extensively in laboratories to detect the resources available near the surface, their abundance and quality, resulting in a better determination of the practicality of mining lunar terrain as well as the technologies and capabilities required for doing so effectively. *China will have a permanent space station in the next six years, by 2020, developed and launched entirely on their own.

RTA2: 10/16/2016 07:04 CDT

An orbiting habitat is an essential part of lunar and asteroidal mining by serving as a gateway and control center, both for setting up & running resource extraction sites as well as facilitating their transfer back to Earth. Meanwhile, our last comparable independent attempt at an orbiting station came in the 1970s with the Skylab program. Even factoring in the ISS, currently our lone endeavor with human spaceflight, only has funding to last until 2020 - if (and it is a very big if) we and our partners can agree to an extension, the hardware itself can remain operational only through 2028 at the absolute latest. End of mission will see it brought to a controlled descent over the Pacific - an irreversible decision with whatever isn't vaporized during atmospheric reentry plunging to the depths of the ocean floor. *A proposed Chinese mission includes an impactor to study intentionally redirecting asteroids and comets; although initially it might appear benign as a means of protecting Earth from future meteor impacts, the capability to move asteroids into stable orbits near Earth or the Moon is universally agreed to be a critical step in mining those celestial bodies, minimizing the distance necessary to transport infrastructure from and extracted resources back to the Earth.

RTA2: 10/17/2016 12:31 CDT

I just happened to be reading another article... please tell me this quote isn't true or accurate: "“In a sense, it’s disappointing that science and space science and space exploration isn’t a bigger issue, but at the same time, it’s kind of a good thing that one side isn’t talking about it and riling up, creating division between it by embracing it,” said Casey Dreier, director of Space Policy at the Planetary Society." Do I 'get' the idea behind it? Maybe. And look, I've always felt Mr. Dreier was good at the work he does for the Society. No employee of TPS should be expressing to the media that our leaders ignoring all things NASA, and NASA dying as a result, is really a *GOOD!* thing. That's just so wrong I don't even know where to begin. Just... wow.

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