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Shenzhou
An illustration of China’s Shenzhou spacecraft in orbit. (credit: CAST)

The coming space race with China

This fall, barring any last minute hitch, China will launch its Shenzhou spacecraft with people inside, thus joining the very exclusive club of nations that have sent humans into space. Chinese government officials have openly spoken of breathtaking ambitions for their country’s nascent space effort. Beyond putting people into low Earth orbit, Chinese officials speak openly of first exploring, then settling the Moon in order to exploit its natural resources.

In May 2002, Chinese officials suggested that the ultimate goal of the Chinese space program was the exploration and settlement of the Moon. Huang Chunping, Chief Commander of the Changzheng-2F (CZ-2F) launcher program at the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), told the Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao that China would be capable of mounting a manned lunar mission within a few years. “China has now solved most of the manned space technology problems, and has the capability within three to four years to step on the Moon. In ten to fifteen years [China will] match the world’s top level of space technology,” said Huang. He pointed out that the key to mounting a mission to the Moon would be funding. He said: “China has a huge industrial base and a powerful team of talents. The key problem is on funding.”

“China has now solved most of the manned space technology problems, and has the capability within three to four years to step on the Moon,” said one Chinese official last year.

Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of the lunar exploration plan and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was less specific about the timeline for a manned lunar effort. He said that the near-term objective would be carrying out the unmanned lunar exploration plan. When the manned space technology is perfected, China would move on to the manned phase of the lunar exploration program. According to Ouyang, China would begin the lunar program with a robotic resource exploration satellite. The spacecraft would orbit the Moon to conduct a comprehensive global sensing of resources—for example helium-3, iron, titanium and water ice—and mapping of the surface environment, geomorphology and geological structure. The long-range objective of lunar exploration is to “establish a lunar base, and exploit and utilize the rich resources on the Moon,” explained Ouyang. More recently, in March of this year, Ouyang suggested that the lunar orbiter satellite could be launched within two and a half years, to be followed by a lunar lander, possibly coinciding with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and then a sample return mission. The entire program has been named Chang’e, after a character in a Chinese fairy tale who flies to the Moon. Ouyang was vague again about when a manned lunar effort would be mounted, stating that it was “not yet” a goal of the People’s Republic, but reiterated that ultimately China would send people to the Moon.

However, in a speech at a space summit in Bangalore, India, last January 4th, Xu Yangsong, a senior official of the Chinese National Space Administration, suggested that China would launch a “manned lunar flyby mission” within four years. The moon mission is “in the study phase” and awaiting approval of the state council, Xu said.

A challenge and opportunity

This aspiration to extend China’s influence to Earth’s nearest neighbor represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States and its allies. China, which has aspirations to become the second superpower, or even to supplant the United States as the sole superpower, seems to have hit upon expansion into the heavens as a means of achieving that goal. Jim Oberg, a former NASA engineer and space policy analyst, has coined the term “space power.” Space power consists of a state’s ability to utilize space for economic, political, and military advantage. China understands that in the 21st century the state which is best able to acquire and exert space power will be most likely to be the greatest superpower of the future. Just as sea power was the key to super power status in the 18th and 19th centuries, and air power in the 20th century, space power is the key for such status in the new century.

The prospect of the Chinese landing yuhangyuans on the Moon and even establishing a permanent presence there while America dithers should be a matter of great concern.

In the meantime, the United States has no definitive plans to send humans beyond low Earth orbit. Certainly the nuclear propulsion and power technologies being developed by Project Prometheus will have applications for such missions. The myriad of robotic probes being sent to Mars and a proposed sample return mission to the lunar south pole are understood to be precursors for astronauts to follow. But no one in a position of authority has been willing to say when—or even if—humans will voyage back to the Moon and on to Mars since the collapse of President George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative. America’s human space program seems stuck in low Earth orbit and, with the Columbia accident, seems to have only a tenuous hold even there.

The prospect of the Chinese landing yuhangyuans on the Moon and even establishing a permanent presence there while America dithers should be a matter of great concern. China is ruled by a fascist government that, despite certain economic reforms, still regularly violates the human rights of its own citizens and threatens other countries with invasion or destruction. China’s ascendancy as the sole superpower, helped along by her space activities, would be a horrific development, threatening freedom and world peace. Even without reference to China’s lunar ambitions, the military implications of Shenzhou should give one pause. The integration of technologies achieved by Shenzhou , including recoverable satellite capability, implies the ability to hit targets in the United States with nuclear warheads with a great deal of accuracy. Also the same low-power propulsion technology used to adjust a spacecraft’s orbit could also be used to alter the path of offensive missiles, helping them evade proposed US anti-missile defense systems, military expert Song Yichang told the state-run China Business Times a few years ago. “We can use this technology to change trajectories in flight, making missiles do a little dance and evade opponents’ attacks,” the newspaper said.

To avoid having its position as sole superpower called into question, the United States should challenge China to a space race.

China’s space ambitions suggest, and indeed demand, a response from the United States and her allies. In order to avoid being left behind in space, and thus having its position as sole superpower called into question, the United States should jump start its moribund space effort. In effect, the United States should challenge China to a space race.

The appeal of such a race is obvious. It could be suggested that more progress was made in perfecting the art of space travel in the eight years between Kennedy’s lunar challenge and the landing of Apollo 11 than in the over thirty years since Apollo ended. Reintroducing the spur of international competition would seem to be a potent idea.

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