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

The coming space race with China

<< page 1: a challenge and opportunity

Space race criticism

However the notion of a space race between the United States and her allies and China is not without critics. The criticism can be divided into two parts.

The first is that China’s space ambitions are more pipedream than reality, because of a perceived Chinese technological and economic backwardness. Yet China has a large pool of technical talent and access to technology developed by the United States and Russia, which can be gotten either on the open market or by more surreptitious means. Because of that pool of talent, China would also seem capable of developing their own technology given time and funding.

China’s GDP, while smaller than Western countries, is not at Third World levels. According to the World Bank, the 2001 China GDP was just over a trillion dollars. In comparison, the GDP for the United States in 1961, the year President Kennedy announced the Apollo lunar effort, was about five hundred fifty billion dollars adjusted for inflation. China is also not prone to shrink from large-scale projects it feels is important. The Three Gorges Dam, designed to tame the unruly Yangtze River and provide hydroelectric power, is estimated to cost a hundred billion dollars.

The 2001 China GDP was just over a trillion dollars. In comparison, the GDP for the United States in 1961 was about five hundred fifty billion dollars.

One interesting point against the idea of a Chinese space threat was made recently by Rand Simberg in his Transterrestrial Musings weblog. He stated, “a true free-market approach (of which, under the current regime, I suspect they’re incapable) will leave them in the dust. That’s why I don’t even consider them relevant to our species’ future in space, unless they display some dramatic change in approach.” The problem is that the United States is not following a free market approach in space flight. NASA is still insisting on running its own space line, rather than going to the private sector for launch services, for example.

Some critics point to the vagueness with which Chinese officials speak of a manned lunar effort. The implication is that such an undertaking is so far into the future that the West hardly need worry about it. But several sources, including the authoritative Encyclopedia Astronautica, suggest that the Shenzhou project will put in place all the technology needed to mount a manned lunar effort. The CZ-5 launcher, which would be used to mount a manned lunar effort, could be ready as early as 2010. That suggests the capability to send yuhangyuans to the Moon some time in the next decade.

Many space experts believe that a lunar effort has very little value outside prestige. Some, like Dr. Robert Park of the American Physical Society, disdain the value of any human in space effort, believing that robots are sufficient. The problem is that these experts are wrong on two counts. They are wrong in suggesting that landing people on the Moon only gains prestige. They are even wrong in the implication that prestige doesn’t matter.

Several sources suggest that the Shenzhou project will put in place all the technology needed to mount a manned lunar effort.

Prestige is a characteristic required of all great powers. Machiavelli expounded on the advantage of gaining prestige when he wrote, “Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example.” Machiavelli’s examples mostly consisted of victory in war, however the 1960s space race was, among other things, unarmed combat between the two super powers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a “war” which the United States won, much to its credit during a time when Vietnam and other problems proved to be a drain on her prestige.

page 3: a different kind of space race >>