You may have seen recent headlines that read, “China Has U.S. in a Space Race” and “Will China Restart the Space Race?” Of course, the term “space race” is a tagline to any competitive space story these days, from the “space race” between private companies to reviving the “space race” between the United States and Russia. No doubt it’s a catchy headline, hence why I used it here.
However, most of these race analogies fail to establish a clear finish line between the competitors in question.
On the topic of China, such headlines and articles sometimes invoke thoughts of American astronauts landing on Mars only to find a Chinese flag firmly planted on the surface, without any proper context of China’s current space programs. These articles tend to play upon the memories of the 1960s, when Americans were anxiously left wondering what the Soviet Union’s Politburo with its mysterious “Chief Designer” would launch next over their heads.
Certainly, there are very legitimate concerns in regards to China in terms of anti-satellite weapon capabilities and under what circumstances the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would launch such weapons. However, in regards to China’s human spaceflight activities and objectives, one need not be so left in the dark. China has clearly laid out its strategic plan for the next six to 10 years and there is little indication that it will deviate from it. In fact, it’s the same long-term vision and strategy for manned spaceflight that China has employed over the past 10 years, and no, it does not include crash programs to launch manned missions to the Moon or Mars.
While estimates of China’s annual space budget vary, most sources agree that China has been increasing its allocations across various space related civilian and defense programs. Its space program serves to promote China’s economy, national pride and international prestige. However, it is also accepted that the United States still far exceeds China — and most of the rest of the world, for that matter — in space funding.
It should also be noted that China’s space activities are primarily divided between two different agencies and are not encompassed under a NASA-equivalent agency. Human spaceflight missions reside under the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), which is part of the PLA’s General Armaments division. Robotic missions reside under the China National Space Administration (CNSA), which is part of the civilian Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
The two are not mutually exclusive, but what’s key here is that CNSA, not CMSA, operates and develops the recently highly publicized robotic lunar missions like the Chang’e-3 lander and the Yutu lunar rover. While such technologies may one day have dual use for a manned landing, CNSA is currently not setting the stage for manned follow-on missions, but is rather focused on its own Moon strategy, which next calls for a lunar sample-return mission set for 2017.
CMSA’s objectives are laid out in a three-step strategy that has been in place since its inception in the 1990s.
The first step: Achieve manned spaceflight. This was achieved with the successful launch of the Shenzhou 5 craft in 2003.
The second step: Develop a space laboratory in low Earth orbit. This was achieved when the Tiangong-1 lab module was successfully launched and placed into orbit followed by a three-person crew onboard the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft who successfully docked with the module in 2013.
The third and final step: Develop a manned space station in low Earth orbit designed to remain operational over a 10-year lifespan by the early 2020s. This is the capstone that CMSA is aiming toward. The station was officially approved in 2010 after years of planning and predevelopment. Additionally, the Chinese may look to incorporate other countries to take part in the space station, including developing nations, as a way to assure the station’s peaceful use, spread out costs and create geopolitical capital with developing countries or regional allies.
While a manned Moon landing or an ambitious attempt at a first Mars landing would bring tremendous prestige to China, current human and robotic endeavors have brought sufficient world standing to China as a space power and serve its geopolitical objectives.
CMSA and its Chinese aerospace suppliers still face numerous technological challenges and bureaucratic hurdles to implement a Moon mission or a crash program to Mars anytime soon. CMSA officials have stressed that they still have a long way to go to achieve China’s space station aspirations, the third step in China’s current strategy.
Even with rapid economic growth, China is also not immune to the struggles faced by its spacefaring Western counterparts in regards to weighing the opportunity costs that come with expensive and high-risk endeavors in human spaceflight. So will Chinese leaders abandon the current and successful three-step strategy and risk their young space program’s reputation on such a high-stakes, high-risk manned mission to the Moon or Mars now? History and all current indications tell us no.
Maybe in the mid-2020s China will reach a point in its space program to start executing development of an ambitious manned mission to the Moon or Mars, and the “race” will be underway. However, such long-term predictions in human spaceflight often prove to be overly optimistic.
So the next time you see a headline declaring a “space race” after a successful lunar robotic mission or progress on a Chinese space station, don’t be surprised. When it comes to manned spaceflight, the Chinese have left little to the imagination.
Zack Hester is a master’s candidate in international science and technology policy at George Washington University.