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Jason DavisOctober 14, 2016

How should America feel about China's space ambitions?

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."

Read more: Chinese human spaceflight

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Jason Davis

Journalist and Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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