September 16, 2013
If U.S. restrictions on supplying space technology to China were meant to arrest the Asian giant's astronautical development, there is precious little sign of success.
From a forthcoming family of advanced launchers to a manned space program, lunar exploration and an indigenous navigation system, China shows every indication of relentless progress in space. The same holds true for the other “BRIC” nations—Brazil, Russia and India—that have generally developed their space capabilities without U.S. help.
Clearly, China would like access to U.S. spaceflight capabilities, above all because most space technology has military as well as civil applications. But for the vast majority of space activities, its space industry is progressing very well, whatever the restrictions of the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
ITAR “has not worked and it is counterproductive,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and long-time critic of the trade regime. “The rest of the world is perfectly willing to work with China, and China has advanced relatively far indigenously. What they cannot do, they can buy.”
Germany helped China with communications spacecraft and Britain with microsatellites, for example. The Chinese space program's life support systems are based on Russian models. Johnson-Freese thinks that, instead of pointlessly refusing to cooperate with China in any space technology, the U.S. “should build very high fences around very few things”— capabilities that are a U.S. monopoly, for instance.
Highlighting China's progress despite ITAR in the next few years will be the fielding of a family of modern launchers. For decades, China has relied on descendants of its early ballistic missiles that burn hydrazine, a fuel with many drawbacks, including high toxicity and poor efficiency, but with the advantage of simplifying engine design. The new rockets—Long March 5, 7 and 6, in descending order of size—all use kerosene as a fuel, with hydrogen for the core stage of the largest.
Drawing on a clean sheet of paper and, evidently, a lot of funding, the Chinese industry is jumping ahead of competitors by building similar or identical propulsion modules for a large range of throw-weights, 0.5-25 tons to low Earth orbit. Airframe sections of three standard diameters are matched with mostly shared powerplants, primarily the YF-100 kerosene engine. (There is some confusion about the payload range for the new family, however, since the Long March 6 is officially stated as capable of lofting 1 ton to a sun-synchronous orbit.)