November 25, 2013
Credit: Chinese Manned Space Agency
“I gave that same paper at Innsbruck in 1986,” said a bemused European rocket engineer at the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Beijing, after a presentation on the Long March 2F rocket. The 2F has delivered 10 Chinese “taikonauts”—and the Tiangong 1 mini-station—to orbit over the past decade, two of them twice.
The European's remark sums up the present situation in China's ambitious game of space-exploration catch-up. Its engineers have caught up with Europe when Europe was 20 years behind the space-racing superpowers. But by 2020 or a little thereafter, when the International Space Station (ISS) may be on its last legs, Chinese space managers expect to have a Mir-class space station in orbit. There is a fair chance that Europe and at least one of the original spacefaring nations, Russia, will have contributed to its construction.
As was the case with the Cold War space powers, China's leaders are using human spaceflight to signal the world—and the long-suffering Chinese people—that Beijing's state-capitalism approach has won modern superpower status for their ancient society. The new Chinese space station—also to be called Tiangong (Heavenly Palace)—will be open to all comers, a Chinese-led version of the ISS that merged the two Cold War superpowers' manned space programs (AW&ST Sept. 30, p. 24).
But there is more to space than taikonauts—a made-up English term only recently adopted in Chinese space circles to give its spacefarers equal footing in English with astronauts and Russia's cosmonauts. Chinese companies are working hard to add spacecraft components to the nation's flood of exports, even as the U.S. tries to ease International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) designed to keep its own technology out of Chinese hands (AW&ST Sept. 16, p. 50).
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force Space Command uneasily monitors a constellation of three maneuvering Chinese satellites launched July 19 with no fanfare, trying to determine their military utility. And the U.S. lawmakers who block cooperative space programs with China on human-rights and national-security grounds cite as evidence of the threat from China the 2007 anti-satellite test (ASAT) that created the largest single space debris cloud in history (AW&ST Feb. 12, 2007, p. 20).
China's leaders live in a secure compound near the ancient Forbidden City in Beijing and may be even less visible to public scrutiny than the dynastic emperors who occupied that sprawling palace. Understanding their motivation for actions like the ASAT test, which came as Chinese diplomats prepared for an international meeting in Vienna on space debris mitigation, can be as tricky as Cold War Kremlinology (see page 56). But China-watching is an old academic discipline in the West, and its practitioners have a pretty clear idea of what is behind China's space activities.
“The top government leaders, decision-makers, people who are in charge of the various space programs at various levels, see space as an area of disproportionately important investment,” says Andrew Erickson, a China specialist at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. “There's been a widespread consensus in China, pretty much since the founding of the People's Republic of China and the early Mao years—but now I think much more realistic and grounded in resources and sustainable program development—that to be the sort of independent, great power with comprehensive national capabilities that China wants to be and increasingly is, China needs robust space capabilities across the board.”