The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Putting a greater emphasis on manned spaceflight, like the Shenzhou spacecraft (above), forces China to divert resources away from military programs. (credit: CAST)

The benefits of a new space race

In October 2003 China became only the third nation to launch a human into space aboard its own rocket. Colonel Yang Liwei, China’s first taikonaut, orbited the Earth for barely a day before returning, slightly shaken, to a landing in Mongolia. It was a significant technical achievement for a country that has been struggling to modernize its economy and its technology, and the Chinese government trumpeted it to its people and the world.

Although Yang’s flight received considerable attention around the globe, what was almost ignored is the fact that after his feet were firmly on the ground, the orbital module from his Shenzhou 5 spacecraft continued to circle the earth, carrying several military payloads. The module is apparently equipped both with a reconnaissance camera capable of spotting objects on the ground about a yard long, and an array of antennas for intercepting radar and other signals from hundreds of miles away. Despite this, Shenzhou is not something the United States should be concerned about, but should actually encourage.

China is pursuing a human space program for three primary reasons: international prestige, domestic pacification, and industrial policy. A human space program enhances China’s status as a major power, at least within the Pacific region. It also feeds nationalist hunger among the populace, making them proud of the achievements of their country even while they realize that they live under an authoritarian and corrupt government—bread and circuses for the masses. Finally, a Chinese “white paper” about space makes clear that the Chinese anticipate numerous technological developments to flow from their space program. Building a space capability requires improvements in manufacturing, computers and materials that the Chinese hope to use in other areas of their economy. Because China is a rival to the United States, it is not in American interests to see them gain international prestige, pacify an oppressed population, or improve their technology.

China is pursuing a human space program for three primary reasons: international prestige, domestic pacification, and industrial policy.

But now that China has entered the human spaceflight arena, and President Bush has proposed a new exploration plan, America’s best move might be to engage the Chinese in future cooperation in human spaceflight, such as dangling the possibility of sending future missions to the International Space Station, and possibly even future competition in this realm as well.

For several years the Western science press has been filled with articles about China’s space ambitious. Reporters have claimed that China has bold plans for a large human space flight program, including everything from space stations to Moon landings. Many of these reports, however, have confused bad translations of articles originally published in Chinese, or handwaved away the laws of physics. China’s space ambitions are in reality much less dramatic and the requirements to achieve some of these goals much higher than the press has implied. Although most of these stories are false, it would be in America’s best interest if they are true, and a shrewd strategy to encourage China’s peaceful exploration of space, with humans, is called for.

Human spaceflight is enormously expensive, even in places where labor is cheap. Despite the slow and deliberate pace of the Chinese human spaceflight program so far, it is clear that China has spent a considerable amount of money to acquire this new capability—nearly $2 billion. In addition to developing a spacecraft and launching four previous unmanned missions, China has also built a new rocket, a new launch pad, and a large assembly building for integrating all of the equipment, as well as various other support facilities, such as a tracking station in Namibia and several tracking ships. Recovery forces such as helicopters and aircraft cost additional money.

The only demonstrated payoff of human spaceflight is prestige. There is nothing that a human can do in low Earth orbit, other than the study of other humans, that a robot cannot do better. China may also demonstrate the value of spaceflight at diverting domestic attention from government oppression and corruption. But the Chinese government is going to do this anyway with other events, such as the 2008 Olympics. As for China’s industrial policy, the United States long ago learned that the spin-off argument is a weak one; although developing spacecraft does produce some useful technologies, it is generally inefficient. If you want a faster computer chip, then develop one; there is no need to go to the Moon to do so.

The only demonstrated payoff of human spaceflight is prestige. There is nothing that a human can do in low Earth orbit, other than the study of other humans, that a robot cannot do better.

Ultimately, the expensive Shenzhou program is not buying the Chinese much other than newspaper headlines. In the meantime, all of that money has to come from somewhere, and it is most likely coming out of their ballistic missile budget. The more money China spends on human spaceflight, the less money it has to spend on missiles pointed at the United States or Taiwan.

In fact, the military aspects of the Shenzhou program demonstrate this point. The Chinese president wanted a human spacecraft for prestige purposes, but in order to get it he had to compromise with the military and allow it to be used for missions such as photoreconnaissance and signals intelligence. The military seems to have learned a lesson from the United States and Soviet Union, who discovered decades ago that humans have no military utility in space, so the taikonaut deploys the orbital module with its military payloads in orbit and then departs, leaving the other spacecraft to operate on its own.

However, this is not only a bureaucratic compromise, but a mission compromise for the military as well. Due to requirements to bring the manned capsule back to China, Shenzhou does not fly in an orbit that swings very far north or south, so the amount of territory it can photograph or snoop electronically is limited. An ideal military spacecraft would also take advantage of all the extra mass and volume that is currently devoted to keeping the human passenger alive. Linking their military space program to their human space program is simply an expensive kludge that wastes money.

It is in America’s interest to encourage such Chinese wastefulness and have them spend more money in non-military space operations. The last thing the United States wants is for China to close down its human space program and put that money back into armaments. So a logical move is for the United States to engage and encourage the Chinese in this new realm. The docking port on the Shenzhou spacecraft is perfectly suited to hooking up to the International Space Station if China is willing to launch the vehicle into a different orbit. President Bush could propose allowing China to visit the ISS in perhaps five years, after they have demonstrated a significant amount of flight experience. The genius of such a proposal is that it would require the Chinese to build new facilities, such as a tracking station to cover the ISS orbit, and work hard at gaining experience necessary for such a rendezvous. In addition, China would have to open up its program to Western experts to demonstrate its safety.

From a Chinese perspective such a mission would have benefits as well. It would symbolize that China has achieved a certain level of parity with the other space powers and is being taken seriously. The United States could certainly live with this, if the result is to siphon money out of China’s missile and military space programs.

It is in America’s interest to encourage such Chinese wastefulness and have them spend more money in non-military space operations.

There is an opportunity for a first step in a related area. China is planning on launching a robotic lunar spacecraft in 2006. The United States is also planning on launching a lunar spacecraft a few years later. So far there has been no effort by either nation to link these two projects. In fact, a Chinese scientist who wanted to travel to a conference in Hawaii to discuss their work was restricted from entry due to visa problems. But instead of ignoring or shunning the Chinese scientific effort, the U.S. could propose closer cooperation with the Chinese to share data from their mission in return for the United States doing the same. Once again, encouraging China to spend its money on non-military space serves American interests.

In the past, many in Congress felt that allowing China to launch American commercial satellites resulted in China gaining access to important American technology. While some of these concerns were overblown, there is a legitimate American interest in not helping Chinese missile programs. But there is no reason that cooperation with China, carefully structured, would result in technology transfer. Furthermore, this is a subject that the U.S. has dealt with before. In the mid-1970s when America and the Soviet Union cooperated on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, a detailed review determined that there was no significant technology transfer from the United States to the USSR. Sharing lunar probe data, or asking China to fly a manned mission to the International Space Station, will not compromise any sensitive technology.

Beyond these cooperative efforts, there may be an opportunity to spur healthy competition with China in human spaceflight. When President Bush unveiled his new space vision in January he was careful to note that this is a “journey, not a race” to the Moon and elsewhere. But it may actually be in America’s interest to encourage the Chinese to think they are in a race to the Moon—and to spend accordingly. So far most of China’s human spaceflight ambitions are focused on developing low earth orbit capabilities such as rendezvous. They achieved the Shenzhou feat through incremental advances in existing technology. But the next step, to a manned lunar flyby or orbit, is a much bigger leap than China has taken before. The Chinese will have to build a new large rocket in the Ariane 5 class, and the extensive ground infrastructure to support it and further manned spacecraft ambitions. All of this requires large amounts of money and will not be easy. If the United States can encourage China to spend this money on peaceful competition rather than sabers to rattle at Taiwan and Los Angeles, then a new space race could have positive results for world stability and American self-interest.