China’s grand ambitions extend literally to the moon, with the country now embarked on a multi-pronged program to establish its own global navigational system, launch a space laboratory and put a Chinese astronaut on the moon within the next decade. The Obama administration views space as ripe territory for cooperation with China. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has called it one of four potential areas of “strategic dialogue,” along with cybersecurity, missile defense and nuclear weapons. And President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed after their White House summit last week to “deepen dialogue and exchanges” in the field.
But as China ramps up its space initiatives, the diplomatic talk of cooperation has so far found little traction. The Chinese leadership has shown scant interest in opening up the most sensitive details of its program, much of which is controlled by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). At the same time, Chinese scientists and space officials say that Washington’s wariness of China’s intentions in space, as well as U.S. bans on some high-technology exports, makes cooperation problematic.
For now, the U.S.-China relationship in space appears to mirror the one on Earth – a still-dominant but fading superpower facing a new and ambitious rival, with suspicion on both sides. “What you have are two major powers, both of whom use space for military, civilian and commercial purposes,” said Dean Cheng, a researcher with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and an expert on the Chinese military and space program.
NASA’s human spaceflight program has been in flux in recent years, fueling particular concern among some U.S. observers about the challenge posed by China’s initiatives in that area. There is “a lot of very wary, careful, mutual watching,” Cheng said. Song Xiaojun, a military expert and commentator on China’s CCTV, said that substantial cooperation in the space field is impossible without mutual trust. Achieving that, he said, “depends on whether the U.S. can put away its pride and treat China as a partner to cooperate on equal terms. But I don’t see that happening in the near future, since the U.S. is experiencing menopause while China is going through puberty.”
But while China may still be an adolescent in terms of space exploration – launching its first astronaut in 2003 – it has made some notable strides in recent months and years, and plans seem on track for some major breakthroughs. On the day Hu left for his U.S. trip, Chinese news media reported the inauguration of a new program to train astronauts – called taikonauts here – for eventual deployment to the first Chinese space station, planned for 2015. As part of the project, two launches are planned for this year, that of an unmanned space module, called Tiangong-1, or “Heavenly Palace,” by summer, and later an unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft that will attempt to dock with it.
On a separate track, China is also working through a three-stage process for carrying out its first manned moon landing. The first stage was completed in October with the successful launch of a Chang’e-2 lunar orbiter. In 2012 or 2013, an unmanned landing craft is scheduled to take a rover to the moon to collect rock and soil samples. By 2020, according to the plan, a taikonaut could land on the moon.
Yet a third track is devoted to the development of a Chinese global navigational system, called Beidou, or “Compass,” to challenge the current supremacy of the American global positioning system, or GPS. Beidou is scheduled to provide satellite navigation services to the Asia-Pacific region next year and to be fully global by 2020.
Chinese academics involved in the space program said Beidou is crucial for China’s military. Without its own navigational system, Chinese troops and naval vessels must rely almost exclusively on the American GPS system, which could be manipulated or blocked in case of a conflict. The new system “can cover the civilian and military sides,” said Xu Shijie, a professor of astronautics at Beihang University in Beijing. “For the military side, it’s more urgent.”
Xu, who heads a space research team, acknowledged that even some Chinese might question the government’s decision to fund a costly space program at a time when there are other pressing concerns, such as developing the country’s western provinces to bring living standards and incomes there into line with those in the more prosperous east. But he called the space program “a long-term investment,” with the potential for beneficial spillover effects on the civilian economy. “The government is concerned with social welfare issues,” Xu said. “But a scientist is also trying to look 20 years down the road.”
There is also the matter of prestige. As with other grandiose projects – high-speed rail, the world’s biggest airport in Beijing, staging the 2008 Olympics – China’s Communist leaders view the space program as a way to show citizens that they can produce successes, thus fostering patriotism and support for the party’s continued rule.
“National pride will increase,” Xu said. “It’s a selling point used by leading scientists.” As part of the effort to expand public awareness of and excitement about the space program, the government broke ground in December for a 3,000-acre space-launch center and theme park on the southern island of Hainan, modeled after the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
When the center opens in 2014, the public will be able to watch rocket launches there from an elevated platform. The adjacent Hainan Space Park, meanwhile, will be divided into four sections, replicating the moon, the sun, Mars and Earth. “We want to combine tourism with education,” said Liu Xianbo, an official with China Aerospace International Holdings, which is building the theme park.
Hainan offers several advantages as a launch site, compared with China’s existing, secrecy-cloaked sites in sparsely populated areas of Shanxi province, Sichuan and the Gobi Desert. It is already a major tourist destination. Its southern location, closer to the equator, maximizes the effects of Earth’s rotation, boosting rocket thrust. And in the event of a mishap, launches over water, rather than land, would make rescues easier. Hainan also has another advantage: Parts of the island are already zoned for military use under the PLA’s control. China’s space program has a civilian component, under the China National Space Administration, but it is run primarily by the military. That could make enhanced cooperation with the United States difficult – and not just from the Chinese side.
Last fall, when NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. visited China to explore areas where the two countries could cooperate in space, two senior Republican members of Congress – Reps. Frank R. Wolf (Va.) and John Abney Culberson (Tex.) – wrote to Bolden beforehand to protest, saying they had “serious concerns about the nature and goals of China’s space program” and warning that “China’s intentions for its space program are questionable at best.” Since Republicans won control of the House in November’s elections, Wolf now chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee, which oversees NASA’s budget, and Culberson is a senior subcommittee member.
Keith B. Richburg, As China eyes the stars, U.S. watches warily, Washington Post, January 23, 2011, at A12