China’s human space exploration. The reactions
those three words can spark
among U.S. space experts range
from a hopeful gleam in the eye at the prospect of cooperation with a growing space power to a worried look that says, “T
hey are going to get to the Moon before we do.”
A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, highlighted the range of options in a recent paper, “2007 Asia Trip Report,” by G. Ryan Faith. “On the one hand, China is embarking on an ambitious lunar exploration program that is closely matched by Japanese and Indian efforts,” the study said. “On the other hand, China has been relatively consistent in trying to minimize discussions of a Moon race with the United States.”
In broad terms then, experts see China engaged primarily in a space race with its Asian and European competitors but “anxious to decouple their timetable for lunar exploration from American plans.”
But China may, in pursuing competition with other nations, ultimately trigger “a race-like response from the U.S.,” regardless of any intentions it may have to keep the world’s preeminent space power at bay, according to the report.
Several other China experts based in the United States said
China knows it should avoid a space race with the United
“I think China understands it is in a perception race with the United States. As long as it stays a perception race they can win. If it becomes a technical race with the U.S. they don’t have a chance,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese manned space program and a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
“They are continuing their fairly moderately paced, but very steady effort,” said Dean Cheng, a Chinese space expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development center in northern Virginia. “The Chinese do not want to get into a race. They are not a wealthy country yet. If we really wanted to, we could spend them into the ground. What you are talking about is bragging rights in Asia.”
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said Jan. 22 at a Washington breakfast with the Space Transport Association that India would ensure it does not lose any space competition with China: “India is not going to allow on the Asian continent a Chinese capability they don’t have.”
In September 2007 remarks marking NASA’s 50th anniversary, Griffin went so far as to say he personally believed “China will be back on the moon before we are.”
Johnson-Freese and Cheng agreed with Griffin that the most likely place for a race is in Asia. “In terms of technology it is within Asia because that is a more level playing field,” Johnson-Freese said. The current pace of the Chinese effort positions the country intelligently, she said: “China has taken an approach where they can’t lose. If they are launching they are winning.”
China is poised for an impressive display of a wide variety of space ventures in 2008, according to its official news agency, Xinhua. The Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defense announced in early January that China planned to launch 15 rockets, 17 satellites and one manned spaceship this year. And in a sign of just how important both the Olympics and space exploration are to China, Huang Qiang, the commission’s secretary general, noted in his announcement that “nearly 30 new technologies would be used during the Beijing Olympic Games this summer, including the Olympic torch, security system and meteorological services provided by a new satellite.” Several China space analysts said they expected the Asian commercial giant to wait until after the Olympics to launch Shenzhou 7, the country’s third manned mission.
The mission will feature redesigned space suits and some changes made to the Shenzhou capsule, perhaps including, many analysts speculate, a
docking station. “You will not see it before or during the Olympics. That is my predication,”
Johnson-Freese said the Chinese
probably will send up three taikonauts and “probably engage” in a space walk or “docking experiment.” Johnson-Freese agreed with Cheng that China
probably would wait until after the Olympics so as not to overshadow the event and so that, should anything go wrong during the mission it would not
damage the events.