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

The phony space race

If all goes as expected, some time late this year—perhaps November—a Long March 2F booster will lift off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China. Atop this booster will be a Shenzhou spacecraft, similar in design to four previous Shenzhou spacecraft launched between 1999 and 2002. This Shenzhou, though, will be carrying a different payload than the previous four: one or more humans, who are expected to spend anywhere from a day to a week in orbit before returning to Earth. This flight will make China only the third nation, after the United States and the former Soviet Union, to send humans into space.

Most people familiar with current space activities have anticipated this event for some time: at least since the first unmanned Shenzhou test flight in November 1999—earlier, for keen observers of Chinese space efforts. Reactions to this impending milestone have varied. Some eagerly anticipate the launch, ready to congratulate China for a feat only two other nations have achieved. Others are dreading the event, fearing that it is another sign of growing Chinese nationalism and willingness to challenge the world’s primary superpower, the United States. And yet others see this as an opportunity for America, a way for it to reinvigorate its space program to face a new Chinese challenge.

“What we saw and heard during our year of hearings and investigation convinced me that China intends to be on the moon within a decade and will announce they are there for a permanent stay,” Walker claimed.

These latter two viewpoints—concern and opportunity—are the ones most commonly seen in the editorial pages of newspapers and heard in the speeches of experts and policymakers. Yet these two reactions are, in the complete analysis, both inaccurate and even dangerous. Many of these opinions are based on information that is incomplete, misinterpreted, or worse; moreover, they fail to learn the lessons of recent history. In short, not only are China’s manned space plans unlikely to trigger a space race with the US, such a space race is one of the worst things that could happen.

An unlikely space race

Much of the concern expressed in essays and speeches has less to do with China’s near-term plans but with what it could—or claimed to have planned—several years down the road. They are not terribly concerned with China’s ability to launch a capsule carrying one or a few people, a task that the US and Russia mastered four decades ago, but instead worry about hints that China would soon follow up those flights with more aggressive missions, including deploying a space station or even sending people to the Moon this decade.

One of the leading people banging the drum about China’s manned space plans is Robert Walker, a former Congressman and chairman of the House Science Committee who most recently led the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. In an op-ed published last month in the Washington Times newspaper, Walker laid out the case that China was planning manned missions to the Moon by the end of the decade. “The conclusion that the Chinese are engaged in an aggressive space program is my own, based upon the commission’s findings, but not included in the panel’s final report,” he wrote. “What we saw and heard during our year of hearings and investigation convinced me that China intends to be on the moon within a decade and will announce they are there for a permanent stay.”

This conclusion is understandable because China itself has been unclear about its long-term space plans, with articles in state-run media that are often sketchy or misinterpreted. For example, a People’s Daily article from May 2002 suggested that China was planning a manned lunar landing by 2010. The article quoted Ouyang Ziyuan, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences who is in charge of China’s lunar exploration program. “China is expected to complete its first exploration of the moon in 2010 and will establish a base on the moon as we did in the South Pole and the North Pole,” Ouyang said.

That language certainly suggests that China is planning human exploration of the Moon. However, in an interview with the BBC a day later, Ouyang said his remarks were misinterpreted. “We will explore the Moon certainly, but with unmanned spacecraft,” he told the BBC. “We are not setting a specific date for a landing on the Moon,” he added, but when pressed by the BBC, suggested that China would establish a manned base on the Moon “perhaps by 2020 or 2030.”

China has more recently talked about a fairly straightforward lunar exploration program. The “Chang’e” program, named after a fairy in Chinese mythology who flies to the Moon, is a proposed three-stage robotic exploration of the Moon. The program would start with lunar orbiters, which would be followed by landers and rovers, and eventually sample return missions. The first phase of the Chang’e program—the orbiter—would be completed by 2010, according to People’s Daily: that timeline is similar to India, which is planning its own unmanned lunar orbiter for late this decade. The March 2003 article also noted, though, that the program has yet to be approved by the Chinese government.

“We will explore the Moon certainly, but with unmanned spacecraft,” Ouyang told the BBC. He said a manned base might come much later, “perhaps by 2020 or 2030.”

There is additional evidence that points against China planning near-term manned lunar missions. China has taken a very deliberative, slow pace in its efforts to date: the four unmanned Shenzhou test flights were spread out just over three years. China’s overall space program has continued slowly, with just a handful of launches a year recently. Moreover, while China has discussed developing a rudimentary space station, there is no evidence of the development of spacecraft, like landers, needed for lunar missions. China’s most powerful booster, the Long March 3B, can place only about 11,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit, a fraction of the capacity of the old Saturn 5. Using only the Long March 3B would require multiple launches to handle a manned Moon mission, greatly increasing the complexity and risk. While China has proposed developing more advanced boosters, like the Long March 5 with up to twice the capacity of the 3B, such boosters appear to be years away from entering service.

These facts, though, haven’t stopped some of the wilder speculation about China’s plans. Walker includes this paragraph in his recent op-ed:

At my Washington office a few weeks ago, I met with a visiting Japanese parliamentarian who specializes in science and technology issues. I related to him my belief that the Chinese would be on the moon within a decade with a declaration of permanent occupation. He disagreed. He smiled and said my conclusion was accurate but my timing was off. In his view, the Chinese would be on the moon within three to four years.

This is (unintentionally) humorous in two ways. First, the idea that Chinese will land humans on the moon in “three to four years” is ludicrous—there is simply no other way to describe such a claim, given all the evidence to the contrary already discussed. The less obvious way this is funny is the timing of Walker’s op-ed. Although he said he met with this parliamentarian “a few weeks ago”, Walker gave exactly the same comments back in February, at the annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Forecast Conference in Washington. The one difference is that in February the parliamentarian was European, not Japanese; whether Walker misspoke or has met with another similarly-minded legislator is unclear. Of course, inside the Beltway, words like “recent” can take on very flexible definitions!

page 2: perils of a space race >>