Year of the Rocket

The Chinese have developed an impressive booster capability--but how?

18 min read
Year of the Rocket

The Chinese have the space capabilities of the most advanced industrialized countries. They build and launch long-range missiles, put satellites in orbit, and, as of late 2000, plan a national strategy for manned space flight. But detractors, suspicious of China's rapid progress, allege it leap-frogged years of R&D by spying on the West. Is there anything to these charges, or has China achieved success all on its own? The truth, it seems, is more complex than either extreme.

Perhaps the most sensational charges were in a May 1999 report by a Congressional commission headed by Representative Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). "The PRC [People's Republic of China] has stolen U.S. missile guidance technology that has direct applicability to the [Chinese army's] ballistic missiles," it stated. The commission had been organized the year before specifically to look into issues of possible espionage by China. But making charges is one thing, and proving them conclusively is another. In fact, the Cox Report also noted that China may have come by its knowledge in part the old-fashioned, dare it be said, cooperative way: through joint projects with other nations, by reading open publications and attending conferences, and through personal contacts. Indeed, China does appear to be hunting energetically for foreign space and missile secrets, but not only in the way the charges first read.

Nonetheless, examples taken from the Cox Report and elsewhere show that confusion, ambiguity, and misinterpretation--innocent and deliberate--still dominate the public's understanding of this security topic.

The MIRV question

Take the controversy over possible Chinese access to one secret U.S. rocket technology--the ability to disperse a flock of nuclear warheads from a single Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The dispute flared in 1998 when U.S. government officials alleged that satellite manufacturer Motorola Inc., headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., had leaked military secrets to China as part of a commercial space launch arrangement. Motorola had contracted with China for six launchings of its Iridium satellites, the first of which had occurred in September 1997. Each launch carried two payloads, which were ejected into separate orbits by a free-flying bus with its own precision guidance and control mechanisms. This was the so-called Smart Dispenser.

The Smart Dispenser strongly resembled a system that on some military missiles separates after booster burnout and places warheads on different paths toward different targets. This is MIRV, the frightening multiple, independently targetable, reentry vehicle system. Deployed with enough accuracy and in sufficient numbers, it allows a strike against enemy strategic weapons that could destroy the other's ability to retaliate.

Both Motorola and China denied the accusation, yet the two mechanisms did look related enough to raise concerns in the United States. But a year later, the commission led by Congressman Cox concluded the allegations were incorrect: "Motorola did not provide the PRC with information on how to design the Smart Dispenser," stated the 1999 Cox Report.

Rather, Motorola required its satellites to be sent into differing orbits and "the PRC built the Smart Dispenser indigenously to Motorola's specifications." The spacecraft in fact used an inertial guidance system that had been developed for a family of intermediate-range missiles. The success of this project demonstrated "all of the techniques ...required for developing a MIRV bus," said the report. And it concluded that the PRC could develop such a bus within a short time of deciding to do so. But the report could not pinpoint the extent of aid from foreign sources that had been received for MIRV bus technology.

That China even had a plan to develop a MIRV is questionable. After all, MIRV warheads are designed for a first strike against enemy missile silos, and China is decades away from having enough launchers--even if it decided to build them--for this mission.

Overblown value

What are stolen secrets good for, anyway? Understanding their value helps in developing an appropriate response. That response may concentrate on preventing secrets from being stolen, or on dissuading other nations from stealing or exploiting such materials, or on reducing the value of the secrets by making them obsolete.

The most obvious value is to apply what has been learned directly to one's own programs. But there is much more to it than that. From knowledge of a competitor's technology can flow accurate assessment of the capabilities it opens up and hence insight into the competitor's intentions. The same knowledge also facilitates the development of counteracting methods. Lastly, the technology may be a valuable commodity for sale or transfer to a third party.

Espionage is not a phantom menace or a paranoid fantasy. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, it was confirmed that, from the 1940s on, the Soviets stole U.S. nuclear and aerospace secrets, and made significant use of the material.

However, espionage is not the only way to acquire technology. In the related area of nuclear weapons, for example, massive mid-1990s declassification efforts under Hazel R. O'Leary, then director of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and others let loose an avalanche of hitherto highly classified materials that became accessible over the Internet or in hard copy. As another example, legitimate commercial rocket deals are aggressively exploited by China to get U.S. partners to provide technical information.

In fact, the stealing and then copying of technology can even hurt the receiving country if the donor country, so to speak, maintains its lead through energetic R&D. A graphic illustration of this principle is the disastrous results for the Warsaw Pact nations of their massive attempt to copy the IBM 360/370 line of computers in the 1960s and 1970s.

In all likelihood, the Soviets obtained models of these machines through third parties, because the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) had officially placed them on a list of items not for sale to the Soviet Union. By building a family of functionally equivalent processors domestically, the Soviets hoped to steal all 360/370 software, load it on their machines, and thereby achieve a software generation's development effort overnight.

The ES project (Russian initials for Unified System, and sometimes incorrectly called Ryad) allocated different machines to different Warsaw Pact nations. It was a disaster, locking them into perpetual second place as they struggled to clone central processing units (CPUs) that would run the already obsolete software.

By the time the effort collapsed, its only lasting result was a generation of Russians and Bulgarians adept at reverse-engineering software. Ironically, there had always been ample local talent to develop adequate homegrown systems, but the theft and copying of foreign technology doomed their entire data-processing industry to a state of backwardness from which it has yet to recover.

China's rocket capability

In contrast, when it comes to missile and space technology, there is nothing backward about Chinese capabilities. Often, though, isolating specific contributions from their sources abroad is hampered by the desire of nearly everyone involved--China, its adversaries, the foreign source, and the source's commercial competitors--to disguise the points of origin. Fortunately, the technology itself does not lie, and engineering analysis can supply insights superior to deductions from conflicting human statements.

In terms of missile weapons, China developed an ICBM called the Dong-Feng-5 (East Wind) in the 1970s. In power it is equivalent to a U.S. Titan or Atlas missile. Using storable liquid propellants, the two-stage missile has a range of about 12 000 km and carries a single 3-megaton warhead. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, about 20 were deployed in mountain bases in the early 1980s (official Chinese sources say 24). These are being gradually replaced with newer models with greater range and accuracy.

Still more advanced solid-fueled ICBMs are under development. But China's interest in this system appears limited to creating a minimal deterrent against large-scale attacks on it by other powers, specifically the United States and Russia. The evidence: the missiles are kept in tunnels and employ other so-called survivability enhancements so they can resist surprise attacks, nuclear or conventional.

The Dong-Feng-5 is also the basis of the Chinese space launch vehicle family, the Chang-Zheng-2 (Long March) and its derivatives. Initially they shared a common airframe, used the same basic design of first- and second-stage engines, and shared common inertial guidance systems. But the space launch version now uses expanded propellant tanks, a stretched first stage, enhanced engines, and additional rocket stages either on top or (since 1992) strapped to its side during lift-off for higher thrust and larger payloads. These vehicles are given various Long March 2 and Long March 3 designations, plus code letters for the exact configuration.

In 1977, China began using a cryogenic third stage fueled with liquid hydrogen--a significant (and homegrown) technological breakthrough. In 1994, the improved Long March 3A family appeared, in which a lighter and cheaper inertial guidance system maximizes its payload performance into geosynchronous transfer orbit, the mission most popular with paying customers.

The commonality of the basic rocket systems gave China the leeway to convert an ICBM base at Taiyuan, southwest of Beijing, into a satellite launching center. Undoubtedly the design teams for both the military and the space launch systems overlap, or are even identical.

Overlapping systems

A 1998 assessment by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the overlaps between military and space boosters made reference to identical systems for many elements--the airframe, motor cases, engine liners and insulation, stage separation systems, propellant manufacturing, engine thrust vector control, and exhaust nozzles. It noted that internal guidance and control systems could use similar hardware with tailored software. In the United States, early civilian space missions also used modified military missiles, but over the years the upgraded space vehicles have developed into entirely new systems.

Chinese satellites are far outnumbered by the U.S. or Russian fleet, but by now have attained many of the same technological capabilities. For example, China is only the third country in the world to operate recoverable satellites, which can bring photographic film and experimental specimens back to Earth. This is a respectable achievement and by all the signs was reached solely through the use of indigenous technology. China also operates a small family of weather satellites and is now beginning to deploy its own navigation satellite system.

Because its booster production exceeded its need for domestic satellite launchings (another pointer to a common facility for military/civilian booster production), China turned to commercial launchings in the late 1980s. Since 1990, the country has launched about three dozen foreign satellites, mostly into geosynchronous orbit, capturing about 7 percent of the world's commercial space transportation market.

Launch Disaster

IMAGE: COX REPORT
Launch Disaster: Frames from a video taken of a Long March 3B rocket launch on 15 February 1996 show the rocket, carrying a Loral satellite, pitching over and crashing immediately after takeoff. An estimated 200 people were killed in a nearby village.

To conduct a wide variety of ambitious new space missions, China has actively sought access to Western space technology through commercial and partnership arrangements, and presumably by other means as well. Photographs of its Shenzhou manned spacecraft, tested twice so far on unmanned orbital missions, show striking parallels with Russian designs for its Soyuz spacecraft. In that case, China is known to have purchased space hardware such as life support equipment, spacesuits, and docking probes from the Russians and reportedly from West European aerospace companies as well. But their ocean-going fleet of four tracking ships they built themselves, rather than buying the surplus Russian ships available.

A Dong-Feng 31 ICBM

PHOTO: ADRIAN BRADSHAW/LIAISON AGENCY INC.
A Dong-Feng 31 ICBM was hidden in its transporter at a 1999 parade in Beijing. The Dong-Feng family is the ancestor of the Long March family of space rockets.

Many other credible accounts attest to the Chinese use of legally obtained foreign technology in their own space vehicles. Aviation Week & Space Technology reported in mid-1998 that Chinese space officials had briefed it over a year earlier that their engineers were using Western components in the guidance systems for their Long March boosters. And according to the 1999 Cox Report, China's most modern communications satellite, the DFH-3 launched in 1994, had its development time halved by the use of numerous U.S. and European components, including the CPU. In a lengthy rebuttal to the Cox Report, a Chinese spokesman denied the satellite's CPU was foreign built, but ignored claims regarding other components.

China has also purchased entire Western-made communications satellites, some for launching on its own rockets, and others that were already in orbit. These satellites and associated ground equipment have raised concerns in the U.S. government that they might be used to support Chinese military forces as well as civil applications. Sometimes the purchase permission stipulates nonmilitary usage only, but any such constraint is unenforceable.

Several current cooperative programs seem to offer China the benefit of foreign expertise for developing its own legitimate space application capabilities. The China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite, for one, gives access to ground observation technology, high data-rate communications, and satellite tracking and imagery downloading sites in the Western Hemisphere. The first payload went aloft in November 1999.

University of Surrey spokesperson Audrey Nice told IEEE Spectrum that the satellite "was built under a know-how transfer and training program between the UK and China." Ten Chinese engineers and scientists spent a full year at the Surrey Space Centre in England, working with British engineers on the design, construction, and test of the payload. British experts also installed a Space Mission Control ground station at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Elsewhere, negotiations reportedly continue with the Canadian company, SPAR Aerospace in Montreal, about a joint Canadian-Chinese radar observation satellite for all-weather day-night observation of Earth's surface.

Each of these projects is entirely justifiable on its own merits. Yet each of them significantly broadens Chinese experience with foreign-developed technologies having great potential for both civil and military systems.

Failures draw attention

But the cases that most alarmed U.S. officials went far beyond mere access to technology for civilian applications satellites. Two sensational events in the mid-1990s fired U.S. government interest in the theme of uncontrolled Chinese acquisition of Western know-how. In both cases, the failure of a Long March launch destroyed a commercial Western satellite payload. In both cases, the U.S. clients helped determine the causes of the failures, knowledge that, if acted upon, could arguably enhance the reliability of Chinese space rockets and--by inference--related systems aboard Chinese military rockets.

In the first case, in January 1995, a failure occurred when the metal shroud surrounding the satellite collapsed amid powerful winds at high altitude. China at first suggested the payload itself had simply exploded. But enough structural engineering data on wind buffeting was forthcoming from Hughes Aerospace, the customer, that the Chinese changed the shroud's design, and no further failures have occurred. It is unclear how this knowledge might be applied to the design of the fairing (a shroud over a warhead) on a military missile, but the possibility worries Pentagon experts.

In the second case, in February 1996, a fault in a new model of an inertial measurement unit (IMU) of the booster's guidance system was to blame. The Long March 3B immediately pitched over and crashed, destroying the Intelsat 708 satellite being put in orbit for Loral Space Systems and killing an estimated 200 people in a nearby village [see images, above]. (The Chinese deny this, but I've talked to Americans at the launch who saw the destruction of the village, including their own hotel.) A Chinese review board diagnosed a particular fault, which a team of Loral engineers that had been shown the report believed was inconsistent with telemetry data. They suggested a different fault in the IMU. The Chinese later verified to Loral that this was correct, and fixed the problem. Apprehension was expressed that this would have direct applications to an even more advanced model of an IMU for a new generation of Chinese ICBMs, the DF-31 [image].

Accusations of spying

Because of the disquiet raised by the two cases, the bipartisan congressional investigation mentioned earlier got under way. While it was at work on the missile technology transfer issue, further allegations were raised of Chinese nuclear weapons espionage at Los Alamos National Laboratories, in New Mexico.

The Cox investigators turned their attention to this subject as well. Following completion of their report, Cox's experts spent six months dickering with White House officials about how much material should remain classified, and ultimately, about 30 percent of the report was withheld. The public version was released on 25 May 1999.

Many major aerospace-related conclusions of the report were hardly controversial. "Since its beginning, the PRC's ballistic missile and space program has received considerable foreign expertise and technology," the report stated. "This support has helped the PRC become a major ballistic missile and space power." The report also credited the Soviet Union with having been "the major supplier of ballistic missile technology and knowledge" in the 1950s and again in the 1990s. And "Western nations, including the United States, Germany, and France, have provided significant support to the PRC's satellite programs."

The most sensational aspects were explicit accusations of espionage by China, described earlier. Also, "Assistance from U.S. companies has improved the reliability of the PRC's military and civilian rockets, and transfer of some of those improvements to its ballistic missiles is possible," the report continued.

Besides the Loral and Hughes cases, the report disclosed that Chinese engineers had attempted to purchase technical information about Russia's SS-18 and SS-25 ICBMs, in Moscow and at the factory in Ukraine. These attempts reportedly failed, but a fair assumption is that other attempts were made elsewhere, with undisclosed results.

The credibility of the Cox Report, however, was not what it should have been. Glaring technical errors were so numerous that neutral observers wondered if the document had simply been inadequately edited for release, or whether the entire report--even the classified sections--was riddled with similarly misleading data.

Qian Xuesen

PHOTO: ARCHIVE PHOTOS
Qian Xuesen was accused of spying for China in the 1950s. He was deported and became a leading figure in the Chinese missile and space program.

To illustrate, there were several pages about a rocket scientist named Qian Xuesen [see photograph], who in the 1950s allegedly stole U.S. missile technology that, according to the report, was used in China's first ICBM. A Chinese citizen who came to the United States for engineering studies in 1935, he became a leading rocketry expert at the California Institute of Technology, in the facility later to become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As a colonel in the U.S. Army Air Forces, he evaluated captured German missile technology. When he tried to return to China in 1950, either to visit his parents or to play a part in the new Communist regime, he was placed under house arrest in Los Angeles pending determination of what military secrets he might have been exporting. According to aerospace historian Fred Durant, the so-called secret papers he was carrying were copies of his own publications.

Amateurish errors

A Shenzhou spacecraft

PHOTO: AP/XINHUA
A Shenzhou spacecraft is lowered onto a Long March 2F rocket at China's Taiyuan facility. A manned flight may occur as early as next year.

Qian was in the end deported to China in 1955 and soon had a leading role in the Chinese missile and space program. The Cox Report alleged that Qian's knowledge allowed China to copy the Titan ICBM. Outside experts considered this claim preposterous: "The contract for the Titan was not even let until October 1955," space historian Matthew Bille, in Boulder, Colo., told Spectrum. "That was over five years after Qian's security clearance was revoked, on 6 June 1950." Qian's knowledge of captured V-2 rocket technology was more useful, but German designs were copied by U.S. and Soviet engineers as well.

"The allegations that he was spying for the PRC are presumed to be true," the Cox Report stated. But that can hardly be so, since the PRC was only created in late 1949, and Qian's security clearances were revoked in mid-1950.

Jens Lerch, a German amateur space historian with an authoritative Web site, commented: "It's quite disturbing that such a report contains dozens of factual errors which are easy to spot by amateurs." They involved historical dates, rocket characteristics, unit conversions, and simple terminology. One incorrect claim was that the Chinese manned space program would "use Soyuz capsules purchased during Yeltsin's visit to the PRC in April 1996," when in fact the Chinese built their own vehicles, albeit based in part on the Soyuz design [see picture].

Unbelievable protests

China's officially orchestrated paroxysm of protest to the Cox Report did more to lend credibility to Cox's allegations than to refute them to any extent. "Deadly insults," "hateful farce," "racial prejudice," "malicious calumny," and "excessively bizarre and absurd" were just some of the terms thrown around. The Chinese press also reported Western criticisms of the report, like comments from The New York Times, from eccentric politician Lyndon LaRouche, and from my own column on the ABCNews.com Web site.

"This is an extremely great slander against the Chinese nation and is typical racial prejudice," government spokesman Zhao Qizheng thundered in a statement released by the government's Xinhua news agency on 31 May 1999. "China has always relied on its own efforts to handle its own affair. Never did China in the past, nor does it at present, nor will it in the future, base its development of the major and sophisticated national defense technology on the 'theft' of technology from other countries. China relies on its own strength to independently develop its national defense science and technology."

Zhao's assertions were to be doubted even more than the worst aspects of the Cox Report. Foreign assistance to the Chinese missile and space sector played crucial roles in the past and will do so in the future. Official denials of the obvious only make all their other assertions look untrustworthy.

Still, deep within the PRC there were occasional grudging admissions: "China is a developing country," noted another Chinese expert. "Due to its limited financial capacity, it has to buy some commercially worthwhile second-hand equipment with less advanced technological level, but lower price." This raises the image of Chinese buyers space-shopping at K-Mart, and is only partly true.

James Lewis, director of the technology program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), based in Washington, D.C., told Spectrum that "the Chinese have two choices when it comes to getting military technology: (a) illegally acquire old U.S. commercial technology or (b) legally purchase modern foreign military technology. Naturally, they pick the second." Lewis does not see high-level Chinese espionage directed at advanced Western space technology.

Agreement on some issues

Below the inflammatory rhetoric of the Cox Report and the Chinese reaction lay some barely noticeable agreements on engineering issues. For example, the Cox Report offered this assessment: "A [launch] rocket guidance system is not usually designed for the same degree of accuracy as is required for ballistic missiles, and therefore may not be suitable for use in some ballistic missile missions where a high degree of accuracy is required."

Zhao Qizheng's treatment of the same issue is not much different: "It is obvious that a missile requires greater precision in the guidance system than a carrier rocket. The greater the precision of a commercial satellite launch, the higher the cost. How can one use the rocket guidance technology for improving the guidance precision of missiles?"

Both agree that direct military use of acquired space engineering know-how is implausible, but the Cox Report suggests that the acquisition could accelerate China's own development of related military systems.

Here, Cox's experts had a plausible case. They pointed out that the booster that failed was using a new IMU, a 48-kg unit in a box about 30 cm on each side. The older system, shared both by the DF-5 ICBM and the earlier Long March boosters, was a 140-kg unit in a box eight times the volume. The new unit could be installed by hand, while the old unit required a crane on the launch gantry. And while the smaller unit was merely convenient for commercial space launches, it was critical for military missile applications.

"A relatively small and lightweight inertial measurement unit would be required for the PRC's next generation of ICBMs," Cox's experts wrote. "While the Long March 3B inertial measurement unit is capable of being used for that purpose, it is considered an unlikely choice. Nonetheless, the experience that the PRC has gained with the Long March 3B in designing a small and lightweight inertial measurement unit that works will almost certainly benefit its designs of ICBM guidance systems in the future." This conclusion is both reasonable and modest, and should not scare anyone into demanding a change in U.S. technology transfer regulations.

Zhao's explanation for the 15 February 1996 IMU failure, while true, missed the point. "The cause of the failure was independently found by Chinese scientists," he claimed, possibly correctly. "The reason came from the quality of the welding of [a device in] the rocket inertial system. Such a low-level problem has nothing to do with the design and improvement of the rocket." To the contrary, correction of a fabrication flaw is of major significance to a military system.

Academic challenges

A serious academic challenge to the accuracy of the Cox Committee's report came the following December, when a 102-page assessment was released by Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).

"It is never made clear how much the Chinese learned on their own and from publicly available information," wrote Michael May, co-director of the California center. He quoted Admiral David Jeremiah, chairman of a 1998 intelligence community committee, as having concluded that among "espionage, contact with U.S. and other countries' scientists, conferences and publications, unauthorized media disclosures, declassified weapon information, and Chinese indigenous development, the relative contribution of each cannot be determined."

The Stanford report continued: "The [Cox] Committee's independent technical expert noted that while PRC scientists and engineers may have a textbook understanding of problems, there is a difference between textbook understanding and the application of this knowledge to specific problems. Interactions with U.S. and foreign scientists and engineers, therefore, could assist PRC engineers and scientists in overcoming these limitations."

The report conceded other points as well. "It is clear that, not mainly the information transmitted, but the example of rigorous, objective fault analysis, management attention, and quality control given by Western engineers may be of use to the Chinese in designing future launch vehicles and missiles," wrote Michael May, the report's editor, at the end of the executive summary.

So the critical space secret may turn out to be a good decision process, perhaps rooted in the brains of experienced engineers, or perhaps documented in some effort at corporate knowledge capture. In the case of Qian, it was his "personal intellect and technological leadership capabilities that were delivered to the PRC," wrote Lewis Franklin in the CISAC assessment.

Good judgment rules

And here the conflicting assessments converge: without well-developed engineering intuition and well-practiced judgment, items of technical intelligence are unlikely to be properly exploited. Those U.S. security officers worried about Qian's papers in 1950 should have let the documents leave and found a way to make Qian want to stay.

It was the same with the von Braun team of V-2 engineers--they weren't valuable because they knew secret formulae and recipes for super fuels, but because they brought the intellectual fruits of years of experience in exercising judgment daily. And when rocket workers applied their own judgment to Chinese reliability problems in the 1990s, they were transferring the quintessence of U.S. space technology capability, the wisdom of its veteran workers.

The prospects of keeping China's space experts from exercising similar finely honed judgment are remote. Their program has been developing for decades and they have tackled and mastered an impressive range of challenges. They will gain more in the various international projects they are involved in, all entirely in accord with legal and commercial constraints.

A revealing interview

Just how this is happening independently of any Western efforts was touched on in an interview with Shen Xinsun, identified as chief designer of the Long March series of carrier rockets and vice chairman of the China Aerospace Science & Technology Corp.'s Science and Technology Committee. The interview appeared 12 March 2001 on the wires of the Chinese news agency Zhongguo Xinwen. Shen, working on rockets since 1956, stressed that "China is fully capable of developing new models of carrier rockets on its own; it has the technology and talent to do that."

And he added emphatically: "China has developed its own carrier rockets completely on its own, and the critical technologies needed to develop new carrier rocket models are entirely its intellectual property." That's not entirely true, but it's close enough.

What, then, should Western governments do to minimize any perceived national security threats from experienced Chinese space managers and talented space and missile engineers?

Responding to the controversy over the possible loss of military secrets, Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, described how President Harry Truman reacted to the discovery of Soviet atomic espionage. Instead of imposing tighter controls, Truman accelerated advanced research. "This helped to exclude any advantages the Soviets could have obtained," Teller explained. For today, he recommended the same response: "Our continuing security is acquired by new knowledge rather than by conserving old knowledge."

Others agree. "In an era of open technology transfer, the centerpiece of any viable strategy must be to keep one's industries running faster than the next economy's," wrote Michael Hirsh, Newsweek's economics editor, in Foreign Affairs in 1998. "America's national security will be assured as long as the Chinese [always lag] a few product cycles behind."

Technological development is no longer driven by military spending, but must depend on progress fueled mainly by commercial considerations, including overseas sales. Thus, the way to diminish a competitor's advantage in acquiring one's secrets is to devalue the secrets themselves by making them obsolete and irrelevant.

The alternative, relying on bureaucratic barriers to suppress China's aerospace capabilities, looks less promising.

It is the offensive game of innovation and invention--and not the defensive game of walls and locks--that the West excels at, and can probably depend on.

First launch of the new century

Quite by accident but not without symbolic value, the very first satellite to be launched on Earth in the 21st century was a test of the Shenzhou-2 unmanned spaceship on 9 January 2001. China expects to launch up to 10 space vehicles this year, nearly twice its annual rate of the 1990s. In preparation for expanded commercial ties, on 19-20 March, China hosted the first meeting in four years with U.S. trade officials to discuss regulating such activities.

Certainly, as it strives to fulfill the space strategy announced last year, China will likely seek space technology shortcuts where they can be found, and to develop them domestically when needed.

Stephen Cass, Editor

About the Author

JAMES OBERG is a 22-year veteran of NASA Mission Control in Houston and now a writer and consultant. His most recent article in Spectrum, "Russia's Sorry Infrastructure," appeared last December.

To Probe Further

For pictures of and information about the Chinese booster program, the Federation of American Scientists has provided a Chinese Space Activities guide at http://fas.org/spp/guide/china/.

 

The Conversation (0)

Video Friday: DARPA Subterranean Challenge Final

1 min read
DARPA

This week we have a special DARPA SubT edition of Video Friday, both because the SubT Final is happening this week and is amazing, and also because (if I'm being honest) the SubT Final is happening this week and is amazing and I've spent all week covering it mostly in a cave with zero access to Internet. Win-win, right? So today, videos to watch are DARPA's recaps of the preliminary competition days, plus (depending on when you're tuning in) a livestream of the prize round highlights, the awards ceremony, and the SubT Summit with roundtable discussions featuring both the Virtual and Systems track teams.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Making 3D-Printed Objects Feel

3D-printing technique lets objects sense forces applied onto them for new interactive applications

2 min read

Researchers from MIT have developed a method to integrate sensing capabilities into 3D printable structures comprised of repetitive cells, which enables designers to rapidly prototype interactive input devices.

MIT

Some varieties of 3D-printed objects can now “feel," using a new technique that builds sensors directly into their materials. This research could lead to novel interactive devices such as intelligent furniture, a new study finds.

The new technique 3D-prints objects made from metamaterials—substances made of grids of repeating cells. When force is applied to a flexible metamaterial, some of their cells may stretch or compress. Electrodes incorporated within these structures can detect the magnitude and direction of these changes in shape, as well as rotation and acceleration.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

High Temperature Resistant Adhesives Beat the Heat

Because suppliers test adhesives so differently, temperature resistance values on data sheets are notoriously inconsistent–Master Bond's latest white paper takes a closer look at some of these crucial issues

1 min read

Selecting the right adhesive product for extreme temperature applications may seem as straightforward as reading temperature resistance values on data sheets. Some engineers will sometimes address temperature issues by simply selecting an adhesive rated for temperatures beyond their application's expected operating temperature.

However, because suppliers test adhesives so differently, temperature resistance values on data sheets are notoriously inconsistent. Master Bond's latest white paper takes a closer look at some of these crucial issues and the key factors to consider when your adhesive application has to beat the heat or cope with the cold.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less

Trending Stories

The most-read stories on IEEE Spectrum right now