In December 2013 the lunar rover Jade Rabbit touched down in the Bay of Rainbows, technically it represented the first soft landing on the moon in three decades; politically it demonstrated a new theatre of Chinese strength – space.
China has a long standing interest in developing a space program, the Party leadership identified space as an area of importance as early as the 1950s and recently it has found the means both economic and technological to launch a serious space program to rival the Russian and US versions, in the process becoming the third country to independently send a person into orbit. The aim now is to launch another lunar mission, to develop a permanent space station by 2023 and eventually an unmanned mission to Mars.
Geo-politics beyond Earth
The purpose of the space programme is manifold; firstly geopolitical and military strategy, a demonstration that Beijing deserves a seat at the top table, related to this is the knowledge that control over outer space will be increasingly important in any major future conflicts. Already China has caused controversy by unexpectedly testing out its anti-satellite capabilities, destroying one of its own satellites but also creating more space junk to the annoyance of other satellite users.
A major unknown is the capability of the mysterious Shenglong (Divine Dragon) space plane, the status and profile of this aircraft is kept well-guarded by the Chinese state, but many believe it has similar capabilities to that of the US X-37B which is an unmanned aircraft capable of orbital missions lasting nearly two years. Some believe the X-37B is an experimental space weapon, capable of destroying satellites and spying on other countries activities, but of course the US also keep their secrets well-guarded.
There are also technological benefits – the work of scientists in this sector can often be applied to other areas, which in turn can assist China in its goal of becoming a more innovative economy. Already China has launched satellites for Nigeria and Bolivia and space technology can translate into improved oil and gas exploration, mapping, disaster relief and many other applications.
Cooperation Vs Competition
China has declared a policy of openness and is willing to cooperate with any country including the US, but thanks to Congressional pressure NASA has not been able to develop strong ties with the Chinese. At the same time the current impasse between Russia and the US has hampered cooperation around space travel between the nations. The result of all this means cooperation between countries around space technology is fragmented, which could on one hand create a healthy competitive environment around research and technological breakthroughs, but could also lead to greater suspicion and subterfuge between states.
China’s approach to its space program has been successful thanks to a steady commitment of resources to the job; there is no feast or famine approach here, which stands in sharp contrast to the recent cuts faced by NASA. Of course the economic boom of the last twenty years has made this approach much easier, but it is unlikely the government would cut funding even if the country faced a severe downturn. The program has also benefited from the state setting out a long term strategic vision – it has known for a long time what it wants to achieve and has set demanding goals in order to make it a reality.
Of course China is not alone in its ambitions, US entrepreneurs are making headway in space travel and India launched a mission to Mars for less than the cost of a Hollywood movie on the same subject. Russia maintains an advanced space programme and many other countries have launched satellites. The next ten years will be extremely formative ones for space exploration as these various actors stake their claims to this technological, commercial and military frontier. The question remains, will China or the US try and develop capabilities with a view to dominating this sphere and set off a military space race?