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Do the Chinese want to send people to the Moon? Do they even know if that’s in their long-range plans.

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“What is your opinion of the French revolution?” — Richard Nixon
“Too early to say.” — Mao Tse-tung

It’s a great quote demonstrating the slow and long-term thinking of the Chinese. It is also, well, totally wrong. It turns out that the reply came not from Mao, but from Zhou Enlai. And according to Chas Freeman, Nixon’s Chinese translator during his early 1970s visit to China, Zhou was actually replying to the question of what he thought of the 1968 student protests in Paris, not the revolution more than 170 years earlier. “I distinctly remember the exchange,” Freeman recently told a reporter. “It was too delicious to invite correction.”

It is a mistake to assume that we—or even the Chinese government—know what and how their space program will unfold decades from now.

The Chinese, we are told, think in different timescales than Westerners. Whereas Western companies cannot get beyond the next quarterly forecast, the Chinese think in terms of decades or more. While there is some truth to this, there is also a lot of falsehood as well. The Chinese can be brash and impulsive too, and just like people everywhere, they want change to happen soon, so they can take advantage of it themselves. Witness the Cultural Revolution.

This is just as true of their space program. While the Chinese do some things at a pace slower than we expect, they do other things relatively rapidly. It is therefore a mistake to assume that we—or even the Chinese government—know what and how their space program will unfold decades from now.

Right now China is preparing to launch the first test component of its long-term effort to develop a space station. Named Tiangong-1, it is not a space station module, nor apparently even a prototype of a space station module. Rather, it is essentially a piece of test equipment for practicing space operations. It will serve as a rendezvous and docking target for several unpiloted spacecraft and later will be visited by a Chinese taikonaut crew. After those visits it will be abandoned. A few years later China will probably launch a follow-on craft and conduct a few more tests. Late this decade they plan on starting construction on a multi-module space station. Essentially, they want to build the equivalent of something like the former Russian Mir space station—smaller than the International Space Station and apparently capable of operating relatively early on rather than after many years of construction. Their space station plans are sensible and methodical, and a little slow-paced. But they also have no reason to rush. They’re not in a race.

The Chinese have been relatively open about these plans for many years now. Their space representatives speak about them at international space conferences. They have even produced slick PowerPoint slides with nice computerized graphics. Their space officials have also talked about their robotic exploration goals and their science plans. Conspicuously absent from these Chinese presentations has been any discussion of their military space program, which has increased dramatically in recent years. China has started to field navigation, communications, and surveillance satellite constellations intended to give it the ability to extend its aviation and naval reach far beyond its shores and counter its greatest potential adversary, the United States Navy.

Despite their secrecy, the biggest impediment to understanding what China is doing in space remains the language barrier.

But also absent from these presentations has been any discussion of Chinese plans to send humans to the Moon. In the last decade there were numerous reports in Western media that China was planning on sending humans to the Moon by 2017 or even 2010. Gradually, it became clear that many of these reports were based upon poor translations of comments by Chinese officials who were referring to plans for robotic lunar missions. But over time it has also become clear that China’s human spaceflight program was moving at a very slow and methodical pace. It was difficult for reporters and commentators to maintain any hyperbole about China’s lunar aspirations when the Chinese were launching humans only once every three years.

But could China be in this for the long haul? Could they be viewing human spaceflight in terms of many decades, with plans for conducting a human lunar mission sometime after they develop their modular space station? Perhaps the tortoise is just plodding along even though the hare has given up on the race altogether?

The obvious answer is that it is impossible to know. Although the Chinese have been transparent about their human spaceflight plans, there is no denying that their government remains authoritarian and secretive. They make decisions without having to account themselves to the Chinese public. This creates the inevitable impression among Westerners that they could be hiding something, even if they are not. It is possible that the Chinese might have long-range lunar ambitions. But it also seems likely that those ideas remain vague and unformed. They already have their hands full with their space station.

The laws of physics are no different on the other side of the world than they are in the United States. Those laws of physics dictate that sending humans to the Moon is significantly harder than sending them to Earth orbit, requiring more fuel and more complex vehicles. Even if the Chinese can do things relatively cheaper than other countries, the level of effort required for sending humans to the Moon remains significantly higher than the other things they have done so far, or are planning.

Despite their secrecy, the biggest impediment to understanding what China is doing in space remains the language barrier. Americans are not as multilingual as many other societies, but it is more common for Americans to speak a European language than to speak Chinese. The few people who do follow the Chinese space program and are fluent in the language state that there is a wealth of information on the Chinese space program available in China—not only websites, but numerous magazines and even books in official Chinese government bookstores. But while those people are familiar with the information, they are not disseminating it to a broad audience in the West; sometimes they are merely writing for US government decision makers. Thus, what we “know” about Chinese plans present and future is often based upon very limited conduits, such as English language websites in Hong Kong. Despite the vast power of the Internet, it is still not possible to surf a Chinese language website instantly translated into English.

One small bit of change in this area is the reemergence of Chen Lan’s “Go Taikonauts!” website as an iPad magazine app. “Go Taikonauts!” was a highly informative website that brought to light many Chinese human spaceflight developments and provided useful analysis before it was discontinued. We can only hope that Chen Lan updates this app relatively regularly so that we can gain better insight into Chinese planning. Alas, we will still be left to drink from a lake using only a thin straw. But at least, unlike Nixon, we will not be basing our assumptions on a bad translation.