Tuesday, April 18, 2006

In October 2003, 30 years after sending its first satellite into orbit, China completed in first manned space flight. That might not sound like significant progress by U.S. standards, but earlier this month Luo Ge, vice administrator at the Chinese National Space Administration, had some surprising news for American audiences.

Next year, he said, China will conduct an unmanned lunar fly-by; in 2012, it will land a robotic craft on the lunar surface; and in 2017, it will send a craft to collect and bring back lunar samples. For a representative of a notoriously secretive country, Mr. Luo’s frankness was an obvious announcement that China hopes to compete with the United States in the realm of space supremacy, if not now, then in the near future.

Washington has every reason to take that announcement seriously. “China seeks to become a world leader in space development and maintain a leading role in space launch activity,” read the Pentagon’s 2005 annual report on China’s military. At $500 million, China’s annual civilian spending on its space program pales in comparison to NASA’s $16.8 billion budget for fiscal 2007. But those numbers hide China’s determined ambition to marginalize U.S. space superiority. As the Pentagon noted, in 2004, China placed 10 satellites into orbit, and plans to send just as many this year. By 2010, it hopes to have more than 100 satellites in orbit, and an additional 100 satellites by 2020.

Phillip C. Saunders, a senior researcher at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, has highlighted the motivations behind China’s increased satellite activity. “Chinese analysts note that the United States employed more than 50 military-specific satellites plus numerous commercial satellites in the 2003 Iraq war,” he wrote recently. Soon after the fall of Baghdad, President Hu Jintao acknowledged that China should “draw on the experiences in the new military changes of the world and seize the opportunities to achieve leapfrog development in national defense and army modernization.” This would require, among other things, exploiting space for military purposes.

Which brings us back to China’s civilian space ambitions. As it prepares for a larger space presence, China is developing a new heavy-lift “Long March” booster rocket to support lunar missions. Such a rocket, says Rep. Tom Feeney, Florida Republican, could double as a carrier for “killer satellites,” which could “incapacitate America’s space communications and space predominance,” as he told Space.com. The Pentagon agrees: “Beijing’s goal is to place a satellite into orbit ‘within hours upon request.’ The Long March series of rockets can support that requirement.”

As China no doubt appreciates, a focused civilian space endeavor is the best way to improve or maintain a country’s technological edge. If China wants to plant its flag on the moon, then the United States should plant its on Mars.

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