This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?
Last september, the People’s Republic of China conducted its first three-person space mission--Shenzhou-7--featuring the country’s inaugural space walk, taken by a taikonaut wearing a made-in-China space suit. Concurrently, its orbital mission to the moon, Chang’e-1, was sending back to Earth superb images of the lunar surface. Both were startling achievements by a relative newcomer to space.
Indeed, in the last decade, the Chinese have burst into manned and unmanned spaceflight. Michael Griffin, the former NASA administrator who drove the U.S. moon-then-Mars strategy, has opined that China could beat the United States back to the moon’s surface--or at least be the first to put people back in lunar orbit--and do so within 10 years. Boris Chertok, the 97-year-old patriarch of Russia’s space program, seems even more impressed with China’s accomplishments, predicting last February that it will be the Chinese who first ”people Mars.”
Could that happen? Maybe. If China were to accelerate its rate of progress, it might succeed in sending teams of astronauts to Mars and other enticing destinations within two decades. But to do so it would have to depart from the top-down, by-the-book, party-line decision making that now prevails.
China has been rapidly recapitulating what the Soviet and American space programs did in their early years, but with modernized systems that could soon be almost as good as—or perhaps as good as—the space hardware that the United States, Europe, and Russia will be deploying in the near future. China’s plan to send a small satellite to Mars as part of Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission testifies to the scope of the country’s ambitions.
Yet a white paper released by the Chinese government in 2000 reveals much about the country’s approach to space. The document, still considered the official manual of long-term space planning, calls for hierarchical decision making, with ”the state [guiding] the development of space activities through macro-control.” Luan Enjie, director of China’s State Aerospace Center, described the official approach as ”concentrating superior forces to fight the tough battle and persisting in accomplishing something while putting some other things aside.”
But that kind of rhetoric does not correspond to the spirit of the new China that’s impressed the world in manufacturing, technology, sports, and nearly every other realm. And while the top-down approach may have worked adequately when the country was just copying earlier achievements by others, it will turn into an impediment as China tries to do things never done before.