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The China Challenge: Space Race 2.0
China is keeping pace with the U.S. in space launches, but capitalism is already stealing the longest march by making space profitable
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has powerful Long March booster rockets that it is counting on to propel its ambitions in a new space race with the United States. It has successfully deployed a moon rover, a Mars rover and a new space station—right over our heads. As in the days of Sputnik, the cry arises, “Are we losing the space race?”
Today, there are many space races. Earth orbit is now open to commercial, scientific and, increasingly, military use by an ever-expanding roster of countries. The competition is hot for available slots, particularly in the desirable and economically promising low-Earth orbit (LEO) arena. Similarly, the number of objects in the solar system to receive visits from one probe or another continues to grow, with more missions planned from a more select—but still widening—group of participants. The most exclusive race, however, is the one to establish a persistent manned presence in orbit, on the moon and elsewhere in the solar system—a race in which both the U.S. (through the International Space Station) and China (through its new Tiangong Space Station) have gained significant ground.
Despite China’s recent achievements in space, the U.S. has been there, done that. It is on the cusp of handing the baton over to space entrepreneurs just when China is tuning up to play. America is conducting space law as China is figuring out the opening notes. However, will China’s energy, resources, central planning and political will enable it to muscle past an evolving U.S. approach driven by free enterprise?
Robert Zimmerman, author, analyst and proprietor of the space and technology website Behind the Black, says the PRC’s emphasis on space is reflected in its current crop of important political figures, many of whom have come up through the space program. “The PRC is picking people to run their government that have proven themselves to be very good managers in a field where error costs a lot,” Zimmerman says. “Other bureaucracies can get away with doing something stupid; no one will care. But in space, if you don’t run it right, things fail, and they do it very publicly. Space also produces people who have to innovate and be smart.”
According to Zimmerman, promoting space managers into high levels of the Chinese government not only guarantees a continued commitment to space by that government, it also raises the quality of that government. This fact should not be taken lightly: “The Chinese government is thus now filled with people who came from that space program, which explains the acceleration in the program in recent years.” Despite China’s renewed focus on space policy, however, the U.S. continues to maintain its competitive edge in the final frontier.
Sitting in a Tin Can
NASA and its partners in Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada have built and maintained the International Space Station (ISS), which has been continuously occupied by crews and visitors of many nations for more than 20 years. The modular complex is the largest man-made object in space and represents an evolution from earlier Soviet and American orbital station projects from the Cold War, such as Mir and Skylab. Capable of supporting a vast array of scientific experiments and observations, the ISS has weathered technical challenges, budget-conscious critics and worldly political conflict to become a symbol of international cooperation and achievement.
Conspicuous by its absence among the ISS partners is the PRC. A U.S. law passed in 2011 essentially barred NASA from cooperating with China because of technology transfer concerns and worries over the theft of intellectual property. This did not stop the China National Space Administration (CNSA) from moving forward with its increasingly ambitious space program using licensed Russian and home-grown technology (and perhaps tech pilfered from the West). Earlier this year, the CNSA established the base Tianhe module of its Tiangong Space Station, which it plans to crew for the next 10 years.
“There is no question that much of China’s new space infrastructure, including their space station and the spacecraft, are upgraded designs of the Soviet Union’s Mir station and its Soyuz capsule,” Zimmerman says. “There’s also no doubt that the Chinese government has used its hackers to aggressively steal blueprints and plans made by American companies and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as documented by one inspector general report. For example, their rover on Mars is almost certainly an upgrade of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers we launched a decade and a half ago. At the same time, China is also improving on others’ engineering, and their work so far has been impeccable. They have not failed. They have done it well.”
The Tiangong program builds on the success of the CNSA’s two previous manned orbiting laboratories. The Tianhe module is scheduled to be joined by two science modules by the end of 2022. The three Chinese astronauts, called taikonauts, fitting out the core module now are due to return to Earth in September. Future launches will bring successive crews to the station.
While the Tiangong will be only a fraction of the size of the ISS, alarmists see its advent as a direct challenge to the United States. The line between Chinese scientific and military development is blurred, and some analysts express concern that the station could host dual-use technology research with military applications. Of course, this is essentially true for any technology for space, from rocket boosters to Earth observation sensors to space-rendezvous capabilities. For this reason, many critics of the so-called Wolf Amendment (named after China critic Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), now retired), which limits NASA cooperation with China, would like to see the amendment removed in future legislation.
However exaggerated concerns may be about Tiangong’s danger as a platform for dominating the United States, the program does have the potential for swinging international support for space exploration China’s way. In June, officials at Russia’s Roscosmos said the space agency was in talks to send its cosmonauts to the Chinese station. Russia has been making noise about leaving the ISS project for years, bristling at Western criticism of its incursions into Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. A shiny new Chinese space station is an attractive lure, particularly if access comes sans criticism of Russia’s foreign policy.
Moreover, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the CNSA have an existing agreement for joint training and technical cooperation in preparation for European crews to visit Tiangong after its completion. While there is no prospect for the ESA (or Roscosmos, for that matter) to have any sort of partnership role on China’s space station on par with what they have with the ISS, China is clearly extending an open hand to spacefaring nations that historically have partnered with NASA. It is also likely that China will make opportunities available for countries that do not have their own space programs to send visitors to Tiangong and thereby expand its influence.
Russia does seem to have gotten over its recent fit of pique and has committed itself to the ISS program, at least into 2025. In late July, Roscosmos successfully—if shakily—delivered its long-awaited Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module to the station. Russia is slated to launch its Prichal spacecraft support module to the ISS later this year. At the same time, Roscosmos officials have declared that the agency is planning to build its new Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS) and place it into a polar orbit, with the first module scheduled to go up in 2025.
The ROSS is an ambitious project with the goal of being able to resupply and service satellites and spacecraft in orbit, greatly extending their operational lives and capabilities—maybe too ambitious for Russian resources alone. In any event, Roscosmos says it wants its presence on the ISS and eventual operational capacity of the ROSS to overlap, which might keep Russia around for a while longer if schedules slip, as they are wont to do. (Nauka originally was supposed to be delivered to the ISS in 2007.) But if Russia’s own resources are insufficient to launch the ROSS, the country may turn to China’s coffers for help.
Big Money Goes Around the World
For its part, NASA says it would like to keep the ISS operational through 2030, when the oldest sections will be reaching the end of their designed lifespans. Rather than seeking to launch a replacement, the U.S. space agency says it wants to support private enterprise in building space stations of their own in LEO. The Commercial LEO Destinations project is seeking proposals from companies leading to the deployment of new private space stations that meet the needs of customers, including NASA. Thus, contract winners will own and operate the facilities as commercial enterprises. This approach is very different from China’s, which sees space exploration and development as a government prerogative.
As sort of an interim step, NASA has awarded Axiom Space a $140 million contract to build a private module for the ISS that could transition into a core module for an independent private station after the venerable station is retired.
If “LEO Destinations” sounds like an upscale suburban mall, that’s sort of the point. Presumably, space station operators will be able to drum up business from private, public and educational entities. NASA says it will be evaluating proposals based on the capabilities on offer. The usual suspects of legacy and new-wave aerospace companies are expected to compete for a share of the $400 million contract.
At least one prospective bidder, Sierra Nevada Corp., says it also wants to design and deploy private space stations to its own specifications, independent of NASA awards. It is also developing its Dream Chaser space plane to serve as a shuttle to orbital destinations. Though not as famous as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Virgin’s Richard Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, the billionaire husband-and-wife owners of Sierra Nevada, Turkish immigrants Fatih and Eren Ozmen, share the others’ visions of private space entrepreneurship backed by deep pockets.
If the Ozmens have heretofore flown under the radar, it is only because they have not yet gotten off the ground (although Sierra Nevada, a major defense contractor, does build satellites for the military). The other private space program billionaires have come in for some criticism and even scorn for squandering their earthly fortunes on allegedly vanity rocket projects and not using their money for worldly philanthropic concerns. Putting aside demonstrable charitable outreach (e.g., Musk’s $100M sponsorship of an XPrize for carbon capture, Branson’s Virgin Unite Foundation and Bezos’ buying The Washington Post), they have taken vastly different approaches to reaching orbit. These efforts have done much to advance humanity’s access to space.
While Musk’s SpaceX has stridden a workmanlike path of marching into orbit with increasingly more powerful booster rockets and better capsule designs, Branson and Bezos have taken the detour into space tourism. Likewise, Sierra Nevada sees its prospective space habitats as tourist destinations served by a fleet of reusable space taxis. The focus on tourism may seem like a frivolous use of orbital access, but the very capabilities that enable a (reasonably) safe adventure for rich people willing to pay for it will make a space-based economy possible in LEO and beyond.
All these companies have perceived that reusability of launchers is a key aspect of making space access routine and economical. SpaceX has put its efforts to overcome the technical hurdles of recovering boosters front and center for all the world to see, failures and all. Blue Origin has been less profligate in its approach to the same problem and has achieved limited success doing so. Virgin Galactic is demonstrating an air-launch approach that, while bringing people to the edge of space, is also a viable strategy for launching payloads into orbit (Virgin Orbit and others are already launching payloads into space from conventional aircraft). Sierra Nevada is poised to test its reusable Dream Chaser space plane next year and has a contract to deliver payloads to the ISS with these planes in 2024.
The space billionaires have used government contracts to launch payloads, to supply and send crews to the ISS, to provide boosters for upcoming moon and space exploration missions, and, through the Commercial LEO Destinations program, to bid for new orbital stations—all as rungs on a ladder to the high frontier. Some are also using the willingness of tourists to pay for the privilege of having a look at the frontier for themselves. This is low-hanging fruit. These U.S. space investors all have ambitions of being in on the ground floor of a robust space-based economy and profess a willingness to use such contracts, and their own deep pockets, to make this happen. But while the U.S. is busily trying to open a path to space for the private sector, China remains focused on a territorial, government-centric strategy.
Wish You Were Here
Government-centric space programs are constrained by government-centric imagination, budgets and deciders. NASA, thankfully, has reasoned this out. The PRC has no hope of matching Western entrepreneurship, even with its world-class resources and demonstrable ability to keep a schedule. Therefore, it is falling back on the tried-and-true Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strategy of outrageous rhetoric to inspire its people and bluff would-be competitors.
A senior official with the CNSA’s lunar program has been reported by the Daily Beast as saying the moon and Mars (and presumably myriad other rocks out there) are the equivalent of the islands in strategic locations in the Indo-Pacific region that China contests with Japan and other countries:
The universe is an ocean, the moon is the Diaoyu Islands, Mars is Huangyan Island. If we don’t go there now even though we’re capable of doing so, then we will be blamed by our descendants. If others go there, then they will take over, and you won’t be able to go even if you want to. This is reason enough.
The fact the CCP views real estate in the solar system the same way as real estate on Earth is both instructive and amusing. There are clearly practical benefits to establishing the ability to exist in space and on celestial bodies in the solar system. Presidents Obama and Trump (perhaps incongruously) both set the stage for the Artemis Accords, which encourage signatory nations to legalize the use of space resources to further their space projects. So, you can use stuff you dig up and refine for fuel and manufacturing. And if it’s valuable, you can sell it.
Of course, both China and Russia denounced the Artemis Accords. Yet China now apparently says such locations are analogous to islands off its coasts that it claims to own. Better get up there and plant some rovers or bases—even though a serious spacefaring power, not to mention a space-based economy, would need to use space resources to sustain itself.
“I see limited evidence of the Chinese government’s desire to patiently work with others in the long term,” says Behind the Black’s Zimmerman. “They want dominance.” He adds that the legal framework for exploiting space resources needs updating. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 stipulates that no nation may claim sovereignty over bodies in space. The Artemis Accords are an attempt to get around that stipulation so as to allow some demarcation of property rights in space.
In this context, Zimmerman has recently published a new history, “Conscious Choice,” that explores the failures and successes of the British colonies in North America, a history which he then uses to illustrate what we should and should not do when we build our new colonies in space. “The Outer Space Treaty had good intentions, and you know where that leads to,” he says. “Its good intentions—like the desire to leave space to all humanity—are actually encouraging military conflict because there is no legal way for nations to work things out.”
Japan recently passed a law on the use of space resources along the lines of that suggested by the Artemis Accords. Japan will be an enthusiastic partner in the Western model for the development of space. One can understand China’s concern. China and Russia have declared a plan to jointly establish a base on the moon by 2036. We’ll see. In the meantime, NASA has the luxury of considering which woman and/or person of color to put on the moon as part of its Artemis program. (I’m pulling for Jasmine Moghbeli of Baldwin, N.Y. Go Long Island!).
NASA selected SpaceX to provide the lander for the Artemis program (which gave its name to the accords), scheduled for a first crewed landing in 2024, although that target may slip due to concerns over spacesuit availability. SpaceX has also been contracted to launch into lunar orbit the first modules of NASA’s planned Gateway space station “no earlier” than late 2024. Again, we’ll see. What’s interesting is that Blue Origin threw a flag on the lander award and claimed it could do better. A judge dismissed the suit, but the attempt stands as a demonstration that multiple American companies are competing to put people into space. It’s an important dynamic missing from CNSA’s committee-driven program.
The PRC’s approach to space exploration looks very much like a follow-the-leader affair, with its space station, moon rover and Mars rover, even if it is a competently managed one. Wait until China sees the power of a fully operational capitalist economy in space. Fortunately, there is plenty of room for everybody. Failing that, it’s a good thing we have a Space Force.