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Ilustration of Shenzhou docking
The stated plans for China’s manned spaceflight program go no farther than the development of small space stations serviced by Shenzhou spacecraft, not—as of yet—lunar expeditions. (credit: CNSA)

Red Moon. Dark Moon.

Very soon—perhaps within the next few days—China will launch its second manned space mission, Shenzhou 6. This mission will carry two “taikonauts” instead of one, and will accomplish more tasks than the short Shenzhou 5 flight. However, it follows China’s first manned launch by a full two years, a substantial slowdown in the pace of China’s already glacial human spaceflight development. The Chinese are certainly not acting like a country that desires to compete with other space powers.

Nevertheless, Congressman Ken Calvert, chairman of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, recently raised the prospect of a Moon race between the United States and China. Noting that NASA’s plans are to land a human on the Moon by 2018, Calvert told a reporter for Aerospace Daily & Defense Report: “I’ve been talking to a number of people that are much more knowledgeable about that than I am, [about] some things that maybe are still classified, but they believe that the Chinese are probably on the mark to get there sooner.”

The more immediate question concerns whether it is true that the Chinese intend to try to send humans to the Moon in the near future. How can we know that it is true?

Speaking to another reporter for Aviation Week (which publishes Aerospace Daily), Calvert phrased it a little differently, stating that his information was not classified. “Even if we follow the president’s vision and we’re back to the Moon by 2020, I also serve on the Armed Service Committee, so I have the ability to look at a lot of things,” he said. “And looking at things that are not classified, more than likely the Chinese will be on the Moon before that. I would rather be on the Moon to greet the Chinese rather than going to the Moon and have the Chinese greet us.” This statement appeared in the magazine that showed up in mailboxes about five days after the Aerospace Daily article.

A “race” with China could actually be a good thing—it is better for China to spend its money on a technology project with no military implication than ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan or Los Angeles. But set aside the question of the desirability of a Moon race with China for a moment. The more immediate question concerns whether it is true that the Chinese intend to try to send humans to the Moon in the near future. How can we know that it is true? To help answer this question we can look to history, specifically the last time that something like this happened.

The last Moon race

Soon after Yuri Gagarin’s flight in April 1961, President Kennedy asked his advisors to consider how the United States could respond. They evaluated a number of options, including a manned lunar mission, and consulted the intelligence community. The intelligence community indicated that there was as yet no evidence that the Soviet Union had a similar program. Kennedy approved the lunar goal in part because Soviet advantages in rocketry would largely be negated because neither side at the time had a rocket large enough to undertake a lunar mission.

In fall 1962, NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden met with officials from the CIA to discuss the possibility that the Soviet Union might have a lunar program. Somewhat surprisingly, in this case it was Dryden who told the CIA what to look for, rather than the CIA telling him what they had found. The key, Dryden said, would be a very large rocket. Look for that, and you will have strong hints that they have started a lunar program.

Over the next year the CIA produced several reports indicating what Soviet developments would indicate a lunar landing program. These included a large launch vehicle, advanced upper stages, improved guidance systems, improved life support systems (of longer duration than tested to date), radiation shielding, and re-entry techniques. Another precursor would be “a considerable amount of unmanned lunar exploration,” the CIA said.

It took the CIA several years to determine if the Soviet Union had a lunar landing program. Although the Soviets started their program in 1963, declassified National Intelligence Estimate documents from 1965 and 1967 still contained qualifiers. American reconnaissance satellites had detected a massive construction project at the Soviet Tyura-Tam launch range beginning in 1963. Intelligence analysts soon identified it as the launch site for a powerful new rocket. But even four years later they were not certain if that rocket was for launching a Moon mission or a large manned space station. A major problem for interpreters was the slow pace of construction that they observed at the facility. Analysts kept scratching their heads: if the Soviets really were racing Apollo, they were not completing their launch facility fast enough to win. This made little sense. Why try at all if you are not trying to win? What they did not know was that the Soviet program was fractured and poorly managed, and that Soviet officials were lying to their superiors about their position in the race. Many of them hoped that the Americans would stumble.

Somewhat surprisingly, in this case it was NASA’s Hugh Dryden who told the CIA what to look for, rather than the CIA telling him what they had found. The key, Dryden said, would be a very large rocket. Look for that, and you will have strong hints that the Soviets have started a lunar program.

Not all of the relevant records from this era have been declassified. It is not possible to determine at what point CIA analysts concluded that the Soviet Union did have an actual lunar landing program, as opposed to simply a very large rocket that could also be used to launch a space station. They did achieve many of the technological goals prerequisite to a lunar landing, but there was no direct evidence of a lunar program for a long time. However, at some point in either 1967 or 1968 the CIA either obtained covert information on the Soviet program, or observed Soviet orbital flights that looked exactly like lunar operations, and changed their adjectives from “possibly” to “probably,” and then to “definitely.” By then it was apparent that the Soviets would lose the race to the Moon.

All of this analysis took place inside the US intelligence community. This information was certainly distributed outside of that community. NASA administrator James Webb certainly knew about it. Select members of Congress were also aware of it. The public, however, had no proof of any of it, other than occasional assertions by Webb and members of Congress that the Moon race was real. Pictures of the massive rocket complex inside the Soviet Union remained classified for decades, and many outsiders doubted that the Soviet Union ever had a manned lunar program.

China in space

Watching China’s space program for signs of a lunar program will in many ways be similar to what happened in the 1960s because the physics of getting to the Moon have not changed. In many other ways, though, it will be much easier, both for government officials and the American public, to monitor the signs and determine if the Chinese do indeed have a manned lunar landing program.

For starters, compared to the Soviets, the Chinese are far more open about their space program in general, and their human space program in particular. In fact, Chinese television showed a lengthy documentary on first taikonaut Yang Liwei’s flight, complete with behind the scenes footage of his training. (The program is now available on DVD and is fascinating viewing even if you do not understand Chinese.) The Chinese press also regularly publishes interviews with space officials who talk about upcoming plans.

Few Americans regularly surf Chinese websites, but there is a surprising amount of information on Chinese space plans on the web, particularly their human space program. What is lacking are both fluent Chinese speakers who can translate what they find into English, and people who are actually interested in what the Chinese are doing in their space program to seek out information. One person who regularly searches for information on the Chinese space program and who writes about it in English is Chen Lan, operator of the Go Taikonauts! web site. Lan says that there is no indication from any source in China that the country has a manned lunar program. What China does have is a robotic lunar program that many westerners frequently mistake for a human lunar program.

According to Lan, China has slowed down its program from the already lethargic development pace. After four unmanned test flights capped by the launch of Shenzhou 5, all taking place a year apart, Shenzhou 6 will fly two years after Shenzhou 5.

As Lan explains, the Chinese human spaceflight program has for several years now had three primary goals. The first was to successfully orbit a human. The second goal is to develop a small, man-tended space station. And the third goal is to develop a small, permanent space station. Reports that China intends to land a human on the Moon, or even send humans on a circumlunar mission, are easily dismissed as poor translations of Chinese language news reports.

According to Lan, China has slowed down its program from the already lethargic development pace. After four unmanned test flights capped by the launch of Shenzhou 5, all taking place a year apart, Shenzhou 6 will fly two years after Shenzhou 5, and Shenzhou 7, which is supposed to feature the first Chinese spacewalk, is now scheduled for 2007. Shenzhou 8 and 9 are scheduled to feature the first rendezvous between two manned craft. But that is not scheduled for 2008. China’s goal is to field the man-tended space station by 2010 and a permanent space station sometime after that.

Compared to the United States or the Soviet Union at the dawn of the space age, China is taking longer but fewer strides. The United States flew men in space nine times before making a spacewalk compared to China’s plan to do it by their third flight. However, such an approach limits their ability to gain experience that is certainly needed for more complex goals. It also raises the possibility that knowledge is being lost in the years between each flight.

Spying on Red China

Perhaps the Chinese have kept a manned lunar landing goal a secret. If so, what other signs of a lunar landing program should we watch for?

Just as during the 1960s lunar race, the Chinese will have to develop certain technologies and capabilities before they can send humans to the Moon. First and foremost would be a new large rocket. The largest Long March rocket is capable of launching about nine metric tons into low Earth orbit. The Chinese have announced plans to develop a “new generation launch vehicle” with a 25 metric ton capability—slightly larger than the American Delta 4 Heavy. It would be launched from a new launch range on Hainan Island.

This larger rocket would allow the Chinese to develop a circumlunar capability. They could launch two vehicles, link them up in orbit, and send them around the Moon. But such a vehicle is not really large enough for a lunar landing mission. Such an approach would require multiple launches and robotic rendezvous. The Chinese could certainly take this much different approach, but it would add a great deal of complexity to the effort. Integrating spacecraft is not an easy task, and it is easier to do it on the ground than in orbit. A lunar landing mission would most likely require a rocket with the capability of launching at least 50-80 metric tons and that would still require two launches and an Earth orbit rendezvous. That rocket would be significantly larger than anything that the Chinese have yet built. It would also require a substantial ground facility as well as a large assembly building and two launch pads. Although the Chinese have reportedly studied a launch vehicle capable of launching up to 70 metric tons, they have provided no indication that they intend to build it. If they intend to put humans on the Moon in the next thirteen years, then they will have to start major construction in the next few years.

Here, too, we have a considerable advantage compared to the 1960s. Today there are commercial imagery satellites capable of taking photos at higher resolution than was available to the US intelligence community for most of the 1960s. Even lower resolution imagery would show the telltale signature of construction of massive new launch facilities at Hainan.

Even if no individuals or news organizations pay for such images to be taken, the fact that unclassified photographs can be taken means that the United States government could quickly make such information publicly available. The Chinese may not talk about their plans, but their actions will be easy to spot.

Today there are commercial imagery satellites capable of taking photos at higher resolution than was available to the US intelligence community for most of the 1960s. Even lower resolution imagery would show the telltale signature of construction of massive new launch facilities.

In addition to technical capability, the Chinese also need operational capability. They need to develop manned orbital spaceflight and related techniques such as orbital rendezvous of two piloted spacecraft. So far the Chinese have demonstrated an extreme conservatism with their human spaceflight program. Presumably they would want to gain confidence in their equipment and their techniques before embarking on a risky mission. So the rendezvous mission scheduled for 2008 is insufficient to give the Chinese confidence in that technical requirement. In addition, they will also have to operate a manned spacecraft for at least a week.

Based upon Apollo and Soviet experience, there are two primary technological developments for a lunar mission that require the most time and effort. One is the large launch vehicle, which is impossible to hide from spying satellites. The other is the lunar lander. As Apollo demonstrated, the lunar lander proved to be a difficult spacecraft to build, and its construction ultimately determined the pace of the program. The Soviet lunar lander was developed entirely in secret and its details were unknown in the West for over two decades. However, the CIA was aware of its existence, and if the Soviets had progressed to testing it in lunar orbit, more would have become known about it. It is entirely possible for China to begin early development of a lunar lander in secret, but they will not be able to conceal its flight-testing program.

At a time when the Chinese have given every indication of slowing down their human spaceflight program, with flights occurring only once every two years, they will have to substantially change their behavior if they intend to beat the United States (back) to the Moon. And if China chooses to launch humans to the Moon, they cannot do it in secret. When they start, we will be able to watch.


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