Skip to main content

A Giant Leap Forward

Forced to go it alone into space, China has reaped the benefits of building an aerospace industry from the ground up. Now that the future of America's program looks most uncertain, China may be poised to slingshot ahead.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
This picture taken on June 9, 2012 shows

ON A MONDAY AFTERNOON IN JUNE, belated history was made 213 miles above the Earth’s surface. At 2:07 p.m. Beijing time, the Chinese Shenzhou-9 space capsule, carrying three astronauts, plugged into a 31-inch-wide receptacle on China’s unoccupied Tiangong-1 space station. At the moment the two vehicles connected, by way of a yellow-painted latch, China became only the third nation, after the U.S. and the Soviet Union, to dock two spacecraft in orbit.

The first orbital linkups of American and Soviet spacecraft occurred in 1966 and 1967. To some observers, China’s third-place finish seems hopelessly late, and its overall space objectives almost quaint. “The U.S. and China are not racing in space, since the U.S. is so far ahead,” says James Moltz, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

But he, and others like him, could be very wrong. Beijing’s orbital ambitions may seem 50 years out of date and almost laughably rudimentary now, but there are plausible scenarios in which China could catch up to and even surpass the U.S. and Russia in space. Indeed, in one niche category—total space launches in a year—Beijing is already ahead of Washington, launching 19 rockets last year compared with America’s 18. (Russia still leads the world, with 31 launches last year, including several carrying American astronauts or cargo.)

Even taking into account the high-profile success of the Mars rover Curiosity, America’s space program is in obvious trouble. Having retired the crash-prone spaceshuttle fleet last summer, the U.S. currently lacks a manned spacecraft and must rent 1960s-vintage Soyuz capsules from Russia while it builds a next-generation capsule of its own. If development of a pricey new American capsule falters—and there are indications it might—Russia and China will be the only countries with manned spacecraft.

THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE PROGRAM isn’t faring much better. The aging International Space Station—the linchpin of international space efforts, assembled by the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Space Agency starting in 1998—could be decommissioned as early as 2020, and so far there’s no replacement on the drawing board.

China, though, has its own plans. The Tiangongspace lab, launched atop a Long March rocket in September 2011, is today just a nub—a single, school-bus-size pod with basic electrical systems and a modest oxygen supply. But over the next eight years, China plans to add two more pods with more power and more air, plus living space and laboratories. Completing the Tiangongstation is currently the main focus of the Chinese space program, and will be the culmination of 30 years of work. Even in its final configuration, Tiangongwill still be just a fifth the size of the International Space Station, and unlike the permanently occupied ISS, it will be capable of supporting human beings for only brief visits. In scale and capability, in fact, Tiangong is much closer to nasa’s 1970s Skylab station and the Soviets’ Mirstation from the ’80s. But it will at least be operational.

To be fair, it would take a near-perfect storm of technical and political failures for the U.S. and Russian space programs to collapse in the next few years. Still, it’s not inconceivable that China could win the 21st-century space race by default—despite its five-decades-late start, and despite the fact that for China, winning has been at best a secondary concern. “By the time they finish their space station in the early 2020s,” Gregory Kulacki, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a paper last June, “the Chinese might be the only people left up there.”

A space race few seem to notice or care about—unlike the Sputnik era, which catapulted U.S. research into a future that led to technological breakthroughs we now take for granted—could have effects as long-lasting as the first one. Only this time, the U.S. will be the long-term loser.

Unlike most members of the American public, many U.S. policy makers have noticed, and have seen the benefits and dangers of inviting China to join longstanding international space ventures. But some members of the U.S. Congress have consistently viewed China’s space program in strictly competitive terms, seeing a high-tech, Cold War–style foe. Last year, the Republican-dominated Congress outlawed American cooperation with China in space, essentially reviving an earlier ban that followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The bans on cooperation have only ensured China’s progress in space, by forcing Beijing to develop its own orbital technologies rather than working with other countries. Our approach-and-reject history of cooperating with a sometime ally and sometime foe has worked to guarantee the late, gradual, and seemingly inexorable rise of the world’s third great space power. We have left China to build a technological infrastructure that has become yet another engine of Chinese economic growth—exactly the kind of engine that once propelled the U.S. forward.

It’s safe to say that in coming years rockets, capsules, space stations, and astronauts bearing China’s star-spangled red-flag insignia will loom ever larger over science, politics, and strategy all over the world—and especially in America.

Great Moments in Space-Race History

The East Is Red

NO MATTER HOW FAR BEHIND the curve China is compared with other countries in space, there are good domestic reasons for a country to mount a space program. The economic and scientific benefits and the dividends for home politics are sometimes difficult to quantify, but potentially enormous all the same. “Technology means industry means economic growth,” the U.S. Naval War College professor Joan Johnson-Freese says.

The Soviet and American space programs each supported hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs, inspired untold numbers of young people to study science and engineering, and spun off dozens of major commercial technologies. In the 1960s and ’70s, the U.S. Apollo program alone resulted in about 3,500 government patents (pdf), 197 of which were licensed to private companies, resulting in 54 major new commercial products—most notably in computers and communications.

When he was director of NASA's Ames Research Center in the early 2000s, Scott Hubbard commissioned a study of the economic benefits of space exploration. It found that every dollar spent on space generated around $2.50 in manufacturing, medicine, education, and other fields. A successful space program “influences the level of public confidence in the ability of government to perform,” wrote Eligar Sadeh, a professor of space studies at the University of Colorado, in 2007. He was referring to the U.S., but his point applies to any country—and Chinese policy makers saw early that they could create this kind of development, economic growth, and public confidence in government leadership for themselves.

As the U.S. and Russia raced each other into orbit and to the moon in the 1950s and ’60s, China was a nation in turmoil—and in no condition to join the contest. Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong’s campaigns of top-down “reforms,” meant to build a utopian society, instead disrupted agriculture, manufacturing, and education, and killed millions through starvation.

Held back by their own leaders, it wasn’t until 1970 that Chinese engineers were able to assemble and launch the nation’s first satellite—a simple, globe-shaped craft called Dong Fang Hong (“The East Is Red”), named for a song praising Mao. Indeed, the 381-pound satellite contained a tiny music player that beamed the song to radio receivers back in Beijing. The song was a gimmick. Swedish space engineer Sven Grahn remembers being shown Dong Fang Hong’s telemetry gear during a 1986 visit to a Beijing engineering institute. “We would never launch satellites just to play a tune,” Grahn recalls an official telling him. Dong Fang Hong, the spacecraft, was actually a test communications satellite in disguise.

The satellite with the patriotic cover story was the germ of a full-blown space program. A few years into the Deng Xiaoping “To Get Rich is Glorious” era, a small but influential group in a government think tank called Project 863 argued that getting rich at the national level required sustained, manned space exploration—that is, heavy rockets, human-rated transports, and a space station, just like the Americans and Russians already had or were on the verge of building. A major Chinese presence in orbit could have a profound effect not only on domestic economic development but on politics abroad, the Project 863 space advocates argued. Without a strong space program, Beijing risked “losing ... international status,” wrote Liu Jiyuan, then China’s vice minister for aeronautics and astronautics.

There was no chance of catching up to the Soviets and Americans—at least, not in the near term. But it was much better to finish last than to not race at all. “A space station is something we are going to have to do sooner or later,” wrote Ren Xinmin, one of the most prominent Project 863 members. The advocates tried to appeal to national pride. “In China,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, “there’s this idea of reclaiming a lost position as being at the forefront of experiments and science.”

Even so, the Project 863 proposal of new rockets, capsules, and a space station sparked a “contentious internal debate,” Kulacki, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a paper published earlier this year. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, in particular, was worried that a civil space program would sap resources from strictly military initiatives such as intercontinental ballistic missiles—though, in fact, the Soviets and Americans had used essentially identical rockets for exploration as for warfare.

The debate dragged on until, in 1992, Deng intervened. He settled the question of whetherChina should send people into space with a firm yes, and directed the ministers to determine howthat could be accomplished.

The result was a 30-year plan summed up by a slogan that translates roughly as “Smooth and Steady Development.” Wary of the accidents and deaths that had plagued the U.S. and Russian space programs, Chinese engineers would invest in only the most reliable systems—brute-simple capsules instead of complex winged shuttles, for instance—and would launch major missions every few years instead of several times a year like the Americans and Russians. Beijing would be running a space marathon instead of a series of explosive sprints. There would be significant overlap between China’s civil and military space programs. Chinese astronauts would come from the People’s Liberation Army; the army would maintain launch and control facilities. In this way, the Chinese space administration would be no different from the space agencies of most nations.

After 11 years and the expenditure of several billion dollars, Yang Liwei, China’s first astronaut to go into space, blasted into orbit in 2003 in the Shenzhou-5 capsule, boosted by a Long March rocket—effectively retracing the steps taken by Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961 and John Glenn in 1962. As Yang’s capsule parachuted back to Earth, 21 hours later, “people were cheering and dancing at the landing site,” the state-owned Xinhua news agency proclaimed in a bit of obvious propaganda.

Following Yang’s first giant leap, further manned orbits and the construction of a space station probably seemed like small steps for China. Yang’s flight also represented the opening of a window for the rest of the world to cooperate with the new player in space travel: for a few years, there existed a perfect opportunity for spacefaring nations, led by the U.S. and Russia, to welcome China into an alliance.

In 2003, in fact, world leaders were the most amenable they’d been to building strong ties with Beijing. Tiananmen had faded in memory. For its part, China had the industrial base, human resources, and experience to play a huge role in the International Space Station, and had not yet begun building its own orbital facility. Bringing Beijing into the orbital fold could have prevented any perception of a space race, belated or not, and considerably strengthened the world’s main orbital initiative.

Arbitrary Enemy

THE CONSENSUS U.S. VIEW of China’s space program is complicated and constantly evolving, but the general trend has been one of increasing suspicion, lately bordering on paranoia. The hostile attitude has poisoned U.S.-Chinese relations in space at the moment America can least afford to have orbital enemies.

Only a few decades ago, in the waning days of the Cold War, an alliance with China seemed positively strategic. The Soviet Union was America’s main rival, and Beijing, no friend of Moscow’s, was a useful “enemy of my enemy.” As China was beginning its space program, it enjoyed the fruits of an alliance with the U.S., licensing various technologies from American firms, including technology to build satellites.

In the mid-1980s, the U.S. actually sought collaboration with China. In October of 1986, nine months after the Challenger space shuttle exploded, killing all seven astronauts on board, U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger visited Chinese space officials at the Xichangsatellite-launching facility in southern China. His mission: to assess the feasibility of launching American satellites from China—aboard Chinese-made rockets. U.S. aerospace firms and Beijing ultimately teamed up on around 30 space launches using Chinese rockets.

But U.S.-Chinese relations, in space and elsewhere, cooled in the spring and summer of 1989, when hundreds of thousands of everyday Chinese left behind by Deng’s economic schemes protested across the country, most memorably in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In the aftermath of the Communist Party’s brutal military crackdown, which killed hundreds and perhaps thousands, Congress outlawed space exports to China—a ban that remains in place today. The deal to launch American satellites on Chinese rockets survived until 1999, when it too was ended by Congress.

The embargoes sealed China off from external space markets at a key moment in orbital politics. From the 1960s through the ’80s, purely national and regional space programs flourished in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., but also in France, Japan, and other countries, fed by Cold War tensions and the race for certain symbolic prizes: first satellite, first astronaut in orbit, first to the moon, first manned station. But with the Cold War ending and the prizes mostly claimed by America and the Soviet Union, the world increasingly collaborated in space.

Only China was excluded. The embargoes against space exports, starting in 1989, and the banning of cooperative launches, beginning in 1999, were meant to punish the Chinese Communist Party, depriving it of the economic, military, and political benefits of space exploration. But with Chinese political will building behind a major space push, the trade bans backfired. Rather than buying space gear from abroad and adapting it for home use, Beijing was determined to develop brand-new equipment from scratch.

That was difficult, expensive, and time-consuming—and a boon to Chinese tech firms, which did not have to compete with older, more experienced foreign companies for government contracts.

“I think the Chinese space industry is happy with the embargo,” says Ting Wang, a Chinese-trained aerospace engineer now at Stanford University. Today, the Chinese space industry employs hundreds of thousands of skilled workers, according to an assessment by Dean Cheng for the Pentagon’s National Defense University. Firm dollar figures for the overall value of Beijing’s space program are hard to come by, but Cheng estimates that the value of China’s satellite navigation market (Beijing’s take on GPS) alone grew 50 percent a year starting in 1998, reaching $1.5 billion in 2005.

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia, damaged by debris during launch, exploded upon reentry over Texas, killing the seven-person crew. This time, the U.S. space agencies turned to Russia, not China, for backup. American astronauts hitched rides to the International Space Station in Soyuz capsules—an arrangement that would be repeated eight years later, when the last shuttles were finally retired for good, three years before the new Orion capsule was expected to be ready.

The Columbia disaster reminded NASA of the benefits of strong space partnerships. As early as 2002, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe was quietly brainstorming ways the U.S. and China might mend orbital ties. According to Richard Fisher, an analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia, O’Keefe even considered installing a docking receptacle on the International Space Station that would be compatible with China’s Shenzhou capsules—a first step, perhaps, toward making China an official partner in the international station.

“I think the manned space program has a potential all out of proportion to its size and cost for improving the diplomatic, political, and military atmosphere between the United States and China,” then Representative Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in 2006. In September of that year, O’Keefe’s successor, Michael Griffin, paid the first-ever visit to China by a NASA administrator, further teasing about a possible return to the close space cooperation last seen before Tiananmen.

These promising calls for cooperation were silenced by a surprise antisatellite test by the PLA, which in January of 2007 fired a prototype antisatellite rocket that struck and destroyed a retired Chinese weather sensor orbiting 540 miles over Earth. The impact shattered the satellite, forming a cloud of over 150,000 pieces that remains in orbit five years later and poses an unprecedented threat to satellites and the ISS. Debris from the test could remain in orbit a century or longer.

This represented a turning point for an increasingly conservative U.S. Congress. Before the test, the George W. Bush White House had pushed for closer cooperation with China in space. But after the antisatellite test, congressional Republicans were determined to erect even higher barriers to U.S.-Chinese cooperation than had existed in the late 1980s—and they continued this push into the Obama administration. Republicans warned that China could take advantage of contact with U.S. officials to steal American technology. They were unmoved by congressional testimony given by then-chief of NASA Charles Bolden, who after a visit to China in October of 2010 said, “There are no documented cases of transfer of technology that gave advantage to any other nation.” Hadn’t China already developed a full range of space gear on its own in the aftermath of the 1989 embargo?

Still, Republicans alarmed by NASA and White House approaches to China inserted language into a 2011 appropriations bill prohibiting NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from spending any money on bilateral space activities with China. The same law banned Chinese officials from even visiting nasa facilities. The U.S. space agency had no choice but to disband two working groups that included representatives from the Chinese space agency, spokesman Michael Braukus says.

Congress watches China’s accomplishments in space and doesn’t see a naturally wealthy and powerful nation joining the ranks of spacefaring nations—and joining them on its own, owing to an American embargo. Instead, Congress sees only a military challenger.

What’s lost in this vision is what America stands to lose as it struggles to maintain its own human presence in orbit. Space exploration is expensive and dangerous. The U.S. has frequently needed Russian help. If collaborating in space with a former bitter enemy is acceptable and necessary, what’s so objectionable about teaming up with a former ally?

U.S. Naval War College professor Johnson-Freese says that space leader America, not late-to-the-game China, has some explaining to do.

“We come across as this irrational player to much of the world,” she says. A rational response to China’s orbital ambitions, she adds, could require a major shake-up in Congress.

With more open-minded lawmakers in key positions, two simple steps could reverse America’s self-defeating blockade of the Chinese space program: a repeal of most, if not all, of the legal prohibitions in the U.S. against cooperating with China in space, and a commensurate diplomatic effort by Washington to bring Beijing into the existing international space program.

An end to the blockade would allow American companies to compete for Chinese contracts for satellites, rockets, and launch service—and also give Chinese companies a chance to compete in the U.S., where the chief growth today is in a burgeoning private space industry, which, on a relatively modest scale, is building the kind of engine of economic growth that U.S. polices have left China to claim for itself. Americans overwhelmingly favor free markets for other products and services, believing that free trade ultimately benefits everyday Americans and U.S. industry. Why should space be any different? It’s even possible to mostly open up the space markets while selectively banning the export of technologies relevant to the military, according to James Moltz, the naval professor and analyst.

Chinese engineers might not be amenable to teaming up with the U.S. in orbit, though, at least not at the moment. More than two decades of U.S. restrictions on Chinese space efforts, says Gregory Kulacki, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, have had “enormous costs in terms of negative attitudes towards the U.S. that this engenders in the young, well-educated cohort of Chinese aerospace engineers who feel they’ve been excluded from the international space community.” Breaking down the space-related trade barriers could begin to defuse this hostility.

Given a chance and time, these engineers should be willing to team up with their counterparts in the U.S., Russia, Europe, and other countries in sustaining the International Space Station as Earth’s sole orbital outpost. “If China were allowed to participate in the ISS, China might not develop the Tiangong space station,” says Wang, the Chinese-trained aerospace engineer.

Indeed, Chinese help could be the only way to keep the International Space Station—and, with it, America’s human presence in orbit—going past the station’s current expiration date. NASA, hit by repeated budget cuts and focused mostly on robotic space missions such as the Mars rover Curiosity, hasn’t yet identified funding to keep the station functioning past 2020. The Chinese equipment, skill, cash, and political will currently being funneled into Tiangong, an orbital facility that benefits only one nation, could instead save an international station that benefits the whole world.

Given the forward thinking that has too seldom prevailed among U.S. lawmakers, and the skilled diplomacy we have often led the world in demonstrating, today’s badly matched orbital race could become a harmonious team sport.