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China sets out its space strategy

Mark Frary
Jan 18, 2012, 8:00 UTC

“That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Neil Armstrong’s quote on stepping onto the lunar surface in July 1969 is one of the most inspiring phrases ever to have been uttered.

Yet the sad truth is that this coming December will mark the 40th anniversary since someone – Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan - last set foot on the Moon.

The school children who have learned Armstrong’s words by rote (with or without the ‘a’ depending on who you listen to) over the past four decades have often wondered as they grew up whether they would ever have the chance to do the same. 

But a return to the Moon is starting to look increasingly likely and the words uttered by the next person to hop down from a lunar lander look certain to be spoken in Mandarin.

In December 2011 the China National Space Administration issued a white paper that outlined the country’s space strategy for the next five years.

The paper outlines an ambitious programme for the country’s exploration of space over the next five years.

In the preface, the white paper states, “Outer space is the common wealth of mankind. Exploration, development and utilization of outer space are an unremitting pursuit of mankind … The next five years will be a crucial period for China in building a moderately prosperous society, deepening reform and opening up, and accelerating the transformation of the country's pattern of economic development. This will bring new opportunities to China's space industry. China will centre its work on its national strategic goals, strengthen its independent innovative capabilities, further open to the outside world and expand international cooperation. In so doing, China will do its best to make the country's space industry develop better and faster. At the same time, China will work together with the international community to maintain a peaceful and clean outer space and endeavour to make new contributions to the lofty cause of promoting world peace and development.”

The paper outlines the key planks in China’s space strategy:

Space transportation. The development of three new Long March launch vehicles, one for taking heavy payloads to near-Earth and geosynchronous orbits and two for transporting payloads to sun-synchronous orbits.

Satellite development. To develop “a stable all-weather, 24-hour, multi-spectral, various-resolution Earth observation system”.

Navigation. To expand BeiDou, the Chinese version of GPS, into a global network comprising five geosynchronous satellites and 30 non- geosynchronous satellites by 2020.

Launch sites. To improve the country’s existing sites and open the Hainan launch site currently under construction.

Telemetry, tracking and command (TT&C). To develop new TT&C technologies and built new deep-space TT&C sites.

Space science. To study the lunar surface both remotely and in-situ and to study areas such as black holes, dark matter and microgravity.

Space debris. To improve monitoring of debris and develop technologies for its mitigation.

But what has many observers particularly excited are two sections of the paper entitled Human spaceflight and Deep-space exploration.

The first of these says that “China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing”. The second proposes “deep-space exploration in stages, with limited goals” but ends with the line, “China will conduct special project demonstration in deep-space exploration, and push forward its exploration of planets, asteroids and the sun of the solar system”.

The programme is ambitious, even for a country which has had its own space programme since 1970, when it successfully launched its Dong Fang Hong I (Red East I) satellite. Western experts say that China is investing around $1.4 to $2.2 billion a year in space and this has resulted in a number of significant advances in the last five years.

-October 2007 saw the country launch its first successful lunar mission, Chang'e-1, which mapped the Moon and carried out a controlled crash landing on the lunar surface.

-In September 2008, the country became only the third country to have astronauts carry out extravehicular activity in space.

-In October 2010, China’s second lunar probe Chang’e-2 mapped the Moon in greater detail than the earlier probe and successfully circled the Lagrangian point L2, a gravitationally stable point some 1.5 million kilometres from the Earth.

-In November 2011, China’s Tiangong-1 (Space Palace-1) and Shenzhou-8 spaceship accomplished the country’s first space rendezvous and docking test.

Such rapid progress has raised eyebrows in some quarters.

Richard Peckham, chairman of British space trade association UKspace, says, “A number of companies have experienced cyberattacks and some say it is almost certainly China. Given the speed at which they have developed a space industry, they have probably had some help in getting technology from the West.”

Others believe that China’s success comes from a dogged determination to succeed.

China space expert and author of The New Space Race: China vs USA, Dr Erik Seedhouse, says, “China’s is an unrushed effort – it is a comprehensive but moderately paced programme that will continue to achieve its goals. They are not hampered by the fits and starts of a Western (US) space programme or by the vagaries of a presidential campaign every four years.”

China’s white paper is at pains to express the peaceful nature of the development of its space programme. “China always adheres to the use of outer space for peaceful purposes, and opposes weaponisation or any arms race in outer space. The country develops and utilizes space resources in a prudent manner and takes effective measures to protect the space environment, ensuring that its space activities benefit the whole of mankind.”

This is in line with the tenets of the Outer Space Treaty 1967, which sets out the fundamental principles of international space law and of which China is a signatory. This states that “the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes” and that “the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries … and shall be the province of all mankind”.

Yet many accuse China of deception with regards to its space programme. 

On 2 November 2011 the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations discussed concerns over the activities of NASA with regards to international co-operation, particularly with China.

At the meeting, chairman Dana Rohrbacher said, “The Chinese National Space Administration is not like NASA, an independent civilian agency. Their space office is merely a public relations front under the command of the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. Thus China’s space facilities are all manned and operated by the People’s Liberation Army.”

He added: “China is now engaged in human space flight and intent on building a space station and a Moon base in the coming years. Ten years ago we thought we could manage the Chinese Government and limit cooperation to only national, non-national defence areas, but we were wrong.”

Dr Erik Seedhouse agrees that the white paper uses the language of political expediency.

He says “Beijing says it opposes the weaponisation of space but their intentions are contrary to this as evidenced by [commander of the Chinese air force] General Xu Qiliang’s statement in 2009 when he said that armed forces should prepare for the ‘inevitable militarisation of outer space’”. 

Yet the US is no stranger to the militarisation of space.

Professor Sa‘id Mosteshar of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law said that what is very striking about the paper is its contrast with the US National Space Policy which, he argues, is more focused on US national and security interests. “[The China white paper] is much more foreign policy friendly than one might expect.”

UKspace’s Richard Peckham agrees. “The US talks about dominance in their space policy documents and I am amazed that they are ready to say that publicly.”

He adds, “China’s white paper says the right things: it says space is for the benefit for all mankind, not just for the benefit of China. Let’s hope that is the case. Space is one of those things where the technology is inherently dual-use.” 

Although the paper talks of increased co-operation on an international stage, it makes clear that China intends to do most of this on its own. It says, “Keeping to the path of independence and self-reliance, China relies primarily on its own capabilities to develop its space industry to meet the needs of modernisation, based upon its actual conditions and strength.”

One reason for China’s stated intention of going it (mostly) alone could be ITAR, America’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations which have made it virtually impossible for US companies to sell satellites and, more importantly, spacecraft components to other countries, even those that are considered allies.

The regulations also make it difficult for companies and space agencies in other countries and regions.

UKspace chairman Richard Peckham says, “US export regulations actually make it very difficult [to work with the Chinese],” He says that prime contractors have to go to extraordinary lengths to launch a commercial satellite from a Chinese base as a result. 

One European company, Thales Alenia Space, offers what it claims to be ITAR-free satellites but it is currently the subject of a US State Department investigation that has been running for more than three years on whether those claims are justified.

Peckham adds, “People don’t want to upset the US but China is an enormous market that everyone feels that you can’t ignore, especially given the state of the economy elsewhere.” 

China’s plans to monitor and “mitigate” space debris are another controversial area.

In 2007, China carried out a high-profile demonstration of anti-satellite (ASAT) technology when it destroyed the ageing Fengyun-1C weather satellite in orbit. The explosion created what some say was more space debris than any other event, with US agencies now tracking more than 3,000 individual pieces.

Professor Mosteshar of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law says that the 2007 event was “something of an anomaly” given China’s active participation in debris reduction activities.

He says, “It is difficult to know at what level the decision [to destroy Fengyun-1C] was taken because the Chinese government has said that it wasn’t a government policy decision to do that.”

Even if it were not authorised at the top levels of government, there is still a feeling that the destruction of the Fengyun-1C was essentially a response to the US “Star Wars” programme, declaring ‘If you can do it, so can we’.

Will China’s aspirations cause a change in other nations’ attitudes?

Professor Mosteshar does not believe so. “I would be surprised if it did,” he says. “The US has made a fundamental decision to commercialise its space transportation services and a lot of money has gone and is going into enterprises such as SpaceX.”

“Also, I don’t think it will change the stance of India and Japan who have been quite successful. I don’t see that landscape changing very much at all.”

Dr Erik Seedhouse thinks the US will not be able to take up the challenge laid down by China’s plans. “The US is mired in budget cuts and is, by virtue of being so reliant on space assets, in a position of weakness in terms of space weaponisation. What is more likely is that China will assume leadership in space simply by incrementally developing technologies and extending its capacities. China has consistently stuck to its development timelines and met all its realistic goals set out in its five-year plans.”

However, UKspace’s Richard Peckham thinks a new space race could be about to begin. “When you see people being very successful, it spurs you on, especially if you have been number one for a long time. The US will react and step up a peg.”

Yet he does not believe that we will see a return to the US glory years of the 1960s.

“That was the most successful period of space exploration. It was an era of competition but it came at a huge cost,” he says. 

Figures released in 2009 revealed that the Apollo programme, which ran from 1963 to 1972, cost around $170 billion in 2005 dollars.

But with China sitting on a record mountain of foreign exchange reserves of more than $3 trillion, those costs seem like a drop in the ocean.

Dr Erik Seedhouse, for one, believes that the next person on lunar soil is very likely to be Chinese.

“I would be very surprised if we don’t see Chinese boots on the Moon within the next decade. The only organisations that can prevent this are Bigelow Aerospace or SpaceX – it certainly won’t be NASA or ESA. And when the Chinese get there, perhaps they’ll wander over to Tranquility base, pack up the American flag and bring it back to China to display in a Beijing museum.”

Such concerns are likely to hit a raw nerve in the US.

In a blog post at the Huffington Post, the second person to set foot on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, said China’s growing ambitions in space was a challenge to US dominance. 

Aldrin said in his post, “China just announced plans to lead humanity to the Moon and beyond, the tail of their comet a strong defence mindset.  The Chinese challenge comes at a time of a dangerous convergence, the international debt crisis and a contentious, highly consequential presidential election. In short, 2012 is an inflection year -- the year we will and must decide whether the US has the will and ability to lead the world in human space exploration.” 

He added that China’s plans created a new urgency for the US to “commit to seeking a permanent presence on Mars”.

Dr Seedhouse thinks that even this may be too little, too late. 

“NASA has been mired in low Earth orbit for way too long and today the US has lost its leadership in space – all they have are some vague abstract musings about a Mars mission several decades hence and the way things are going, the Chinese won’t only beat the US back to the Moon, they may also be the welcoming party when the US finally gets to Mars.”