China: The Next Space Superpower

A lunar rover, a crewed space station, and new rockets top China's space agenda

5 min read
China: The Next Space Superpower
Illustration: Brian Stauffer

For the opening ceremony of the 64th International Astronautical Congress in Beijing this past September, the Chinese hosts pulled out all the stops. Acrobats bounded against a backdrop of starry skies, dancers in bulky spacesuits lumbered across the stage, and opera singers sang songs of love under a glowing neon moon.

Throughout the weeklong conference, Chinese officials spoke proudly of developing their lunar exploration program, building a heavy-lift rocket, constructing a spaceport, and planning an orbital space station. As 2014 dawns, China has the most active and ambitious space program in the world.

“They are having launches, and in the United States we’re in gridlock,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, in Newport, R.I. “The Chinese will have a rover onthe moon, and we’re still developing PowerPoints for programs that don’t get approved by Congress.” That rover is rolling over the regolith right now.

How are the Chinese accomplishing so much? One explanation came from Gao Hongwei, chairman of the state-owned China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp., who took the stage during September’s Beijing conference. “We are developing a space industry with Chinese characteristics,” he said.

Johnson-Freese put it more bluntly: “In terms of technology, are the Chinese at a peer level or more advanced than us? No, absolutely not. What they have that we don’t is political will.”

That point was driven home in a panel discussion at the Beijing conference, where the heads of the world’s major space agencies took the stage together. When asked about his agency’s biggest challenge, Ma Xingrui, director of the China National Space Administration, spoke of engineering complications with the heavy-lift rocket now in development, a behemoth that will be capable of lifting 25 tons into orbit. When Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator, was asked the same question, he had quite a different answer. “I think NASA’s biggest challenge is inspiring our nation,” he said. “We need to inspire the American public, and we need to inspire this Congress. Because that translates to funding.”

China’s space program differs from those of other nations in part because of the nation’s political structure: A single-party government with a bevy of strong state-owned enterprises can get a lot done. And the Chinese government has committed fully to its space program, seeing it as a way to win global prestige. While China is just now meeting milestones that the United States and the former Soviet Union passed decades ago, the Chinese government’s unflagging support means that its program is quickly catching up.

China launched its first orbital space lab, a small module called Tiangong-1 (the name means “heavenly palace”), in 2011. There followed a cautious series of spacecraft rendezvous: An uncrewed craft docked that year, and there was one crewed mission in both 2012 and 2013, with short stays aboard the lab. The next step will be the launch of Tiangong-2, another space lab, in 2015, followed by the construction of a full-scale space station, due for completion around 2020.

This slow and steady approach, so unlike the U.S.-Soviet space race, means that Chinese astronauts “spend a lot of time on the ground,” says Brian Harvey, author of the recent book China in Space. “They are very disciplined in not letting themselves be rushed. China is very conscious of its history. They’ve been doing rocketry since 1274, so what’s the hurry?”

The Chinese expect to finish their space station around the time that the International Space Station runs out of funding, and they hope to fill the void. Already the Chinese government has spoken of allowing other nations’ astronauts to stay aboard the station. China also intends the station to facilitate even more ambitious voyages into the solar system.

“The Chinese have said repeatedly that they are not going to go into space, land on the moon, look around, say, Been there, done that,’ and consider themselves done,” says Johnson-Freese. “They’re going to do stepping-stone infrastructure, and in those terms their space station makes sense.”

Where else might Chinese astronauts go? Their current program doesn’t commit to a crewed mission to the moon, but many experts believe the odds favor one. A recent report published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences proposes a road map that also mentions a crewed lunar base, a crewed mission to Mars, and robotic exploration of other planets by the year 2050.

That report lists technologies that Chinese researchers need to master, including autonomous navigation and high-speed communication systems for deep space, as well as fuel cells and atomic generators to power the spacecraft. Activity on all these engineering fronts could indeed achieve the report’s stated goal, says Harvey: “By 2050, China should be the leading scientific nation in the world.”

Hainan Island, which lies south of Hong Kong in the South China Sea, is the site of one of the world’s biggest construction projects. Workers are pouring concrete near the town of Wenchang for China’s fourth space-launch facility, designed to accommodate the next-generation Long March 5 heavy-lift rockets. These rockets are too big to move to China’s other three launch sites—they don’t fit through the railway tunnels—so workers are building the large-diameter rockets in the harbor city of Tianjin, and then transporting them by barge to Hainan.

The Hainan site is expected to be operational by the end of 2014, when it will begin launching midsize rockets; the Long March 5 is scheduled for completion in 2015. What’s more, tourists will be able to take in the show. The Chinese space agency is building resorts and a space theme park on the island, which will reportedly include an aerospace museum and spaceflight simulators. Chinese space enthusiasts will be able to take a holiday in Hainan and, presumably, enjoy the spectacle of their own rockets soaring into the stratosphere.

China’s rockets aren’t just getting bigger; they’re getting better chemistry. The first few Long March rockets used highly toxic and corrosive rocket fuels, but the newest multistage rockets use clean and powerful liquid propellants (kerosene and liquid oxygen for the first stage, hydrogen and liquid oxygen for the upper stage). “In five years’ time, China will have a completely new rocket fleet,” says Harvey.

The crewed space program may get most of the attention, but China’s new rockets won’t be used only to launch space labs and astronauts. Just as the Chinese space station will provide an alternative (or a successor) to the ISS, China is seeking to furnish the world with an alternative to today’s two global satellite navigation systems: GPS, run by the United States, and Russia’s GLONASS.

China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System already has 14 satellites in orbit, according to a presentation at the International Astronautical Congress by Ran Chengqi, director of the China Satellite Navigation Office. In December 2012 the system began providing regional service for the Asia Pacific, with coverage stretching from China to Australia. Ran announced that more than 20 vehicle manufacturers have already begun installing dual-mode navigation systems that use both GPS and BeiDou. “We have entered an era of multinavigation system integration,” said Ran, “and compatibility and interoperability have become the major trends.” By 2020, the full fleet of 35 satellites is expected to be in place, providing global coverage.

Finally, China is turning its attention to space science, which has been largely missing from its space program thus far. In 2010 the Chinese government established a special budget to support five space science satellites, according to Wu Ji, director general of space science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The first of these satellites, the Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope, will perform all-sky surveys and in-depth observations of X-ray sources like black holes and neutron stars. It’s expected to launch in 2014 or 2015.

Short of an economic or political collapse, experts don’t see much likelihood that China will abandon its slow, steady march to the stars. Too many dreams and ambitions are wrapped up in it.

“The average age of the Chinese space worker is 27,” says Harvey. “These people are at the beginning of their professional careers. Just imagine them in 20 years, when they have experience and have learned from their mistakes. It’s not a question of what will they do; it’s a question of what will they not do.”

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