Could China Get to Mars First?

Maybe—if it adopts a less top-down approach

5 min read
Taikonauts prepare for China’s first three-person spaceflight.
Photo: Jiuquan Launch Center/Color China Photo/AP Photo

This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

taikonauts prepareReady To Go: Taikonauts prepare for China’s first three-person spaceflight.Photo: Jiuquan Launch Center/Color China Photo/AP Photo

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.

In fact, China’s progress in space to date has not quite matched public perceptions. Following a well-worn path, the Chinese have required just a single mission to accomplish each step, but they have needed more time—not less—than their predecessors to reach each new level. Both the United States and the Soviet Union went from their first orbital flight to multimanned flights and space walks in three to four years, but China took five. And while the two big competitors of the 1950s and 1960s got to orbital rendezvous in four to six years, the Chinese expect it to take them seven or eight. Pushing into the unknown, physically and technologically, could be asking for trouble if the space program is too narrow and decision making overly concentrated. “They are not building the science and technology infrastructure necessary for a broad program,” comments Joan Johnson-Freese, head of the national security decision-making department at the U.S. Naval War College and an expert on China’s space efforts.

But what Johnson-Freese sees as a deficiency, others see as an asset. “The program does not try to do everything. Instead it focuses on four or five key areas, which it does well,” observes Irish space historian Brian Harvey, author of two books on the Chinese space program. “And its infrastructure of launch sites, mission-control centers, and tracking ships is so new it must make the neighboring Russians weep—that infrastructure will be good for 30 years.

“This is a program that thinks long term,” Harvey adds. “The rocket was invented in China, after all, and their space program was formally founded in 1956, before Sputnik.”

Looking to the future, China intends to pick up the pace. The next challenge to be tackled is space docking; for that, China will build an 8-metric-ton space station named Tiangong (“heavenly palace”) to be launched in late 2010. Months later, an unmanned Shenzhou-8 is supposed to perform automated rendezvous and docking, followed by manned dockings and a brief occupation of the small space station.

Those flights will set the stage for construction and launch of a second space station two or three times as large as Tiangong. Meanwhile, the Chinese might visit the International Space Station, but they’ve made it clear they are not interested in being a junior partner in somebody else’s project.

Building their bigger station will require a more powerful booster, called the Long March 5. Equivalent in size and power to the Ariane 5, Delta IV, or Ares I, it will hoist 25 000 kilograms, two and a half times as much as today’s Long March rockets lift. Long March 5 will be able to carry heavy communications satellites and send spacecraft into Earth-escape trajectories.

Ye Peijan, chief designer of the Chang’e-1 lunar probe, recently disclosed a schedule that calls for Chang’e-2 by 2011 (to test soft landing) and Chang’e-3 in 2013 (to land instruments on the lunar surface). Beginning in 2017, a new phase of lunar exploration will begin using heavier spacecraft launched by the Long March 5. These later vehicles will include rovers and sample-return craft.

So far, the Chinese have proven to be masters at adapting technology from other countries. The Russian Orlan-M space suit, for example, was the model for the Chinese-made suit used by its first spacewalker last year. But one design feature—an overhead window in the rigid-mounted helmet nicknamed the “moon roof”—was not required in the Chinese suit, so they simply omitted it.

Chinese space engineers have also seamlessly repurposed domestic designs taken from other industries. For the Chang’e-1 lunar orbiter, its builders adapted the design of a geosynchronous communications satellite and modified the launch profile of its booster. With mission-specific instrumentation, they achieved an impressive success on their first launch.

These kinds of tricks could provide China with shortcuts into deep space, enabling it to outcompete countries with deeper pockets and more experience. By the end of the next decade, space station Tiangong-2 could make an ideal habitat for long cruises in lunar orbit or to the Earth–moon Lagrangian points, where the two bodies’ gravity fields are in equilibrium. Later, aboard a Shenzhou/Tiangong-class habitat, taikonauts could venture into interplanetary space to scout out the sun–Earth Lagrangian points, which could someday serve as jumping-off points for missions to Mars and other deep-space destinations. Several years ago, a panel led by NASA’s former associate administrator for space science Wesley Huntress proposed that kind of step-by-step strategy for the United States, as an alternative to its moon-then-Mars program, which is named Constellation.

China’s space engineers have learned quickly—not just from their own experiences but from other people’s as well (a commendable trait that NASA would do well to copy). If they can overcome obsolete managerial attitudes, they could become even faster learners. The average age of the Chinese teams now at work is much lower than that of their American or European counterparts. That means the Chinese will be hitting their peak productive years in a decade or two, just as Mars comes into focus.

For more articles, go to Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

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