At the dawn of the Space Age, China lagged far behind the United States and the Soviet Union. Beijing didn’t even launch its first satellite until 1970.
But China has made remarkable progress. On June 24, three Chinese astronauts successfully docked their Shenzhou spacecraft with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab. The mission underscored again China’s interest in manned spaceflight. And the manual docking itself marked a major step toward a greater Chinese presence in space, as docking and extended missions are essential to any space station or lunar mission.
China’s manned space program results from longstanding indigenous development efforts, leavened with some foreign technology. Aerospace efforts have been a top research priority for the People’s Republic of China since March 1986. That’s when senior political and military leadership established Plan 863, formally termed the National High-Technology Research and Development Plan. These leaders saw space capability as promoting economic development. Moreover, many viewed space as an arena where competition with the United States would be both inevitable and necessary.
With commitment from the top, progress was rapid. By 1990, Chinese scientists approved a space-capsule design that would serve as China’s vessel to the stars.
China’s space efforts also got a boost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cash-strapped Russia happily sold China life-support systems and spacesuit technology. The Kremlin also trained two Chinese astronauts - all for cash.
China took the Russian technology and improved upon it. The Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft is more powerful and versatile than its Soyuz cousin. Similarly, the Tiangong-1 space lab bears little resemblance to the Soviet Salyut space station - not least because the Chinese program isn’t armed with a cannon.
Beijing has used its space program, including its manned space efforts, to highlight its technological prowess and to build diplomatic bridges. But the program also serves to signal the PRC’s growing military capabilities, and to raise its stature as a great power.
Compared to China, the United States enjoys a far wider array of space capabilities, but Washington seems to employ them less effectively. Here are some things the U.S. can do to get the most out of its space programs.
*Think about space in broader terms. China sees space not just as an arena for industrial policy, but as a diplomatic tool. Every Chinese space mission is a form of strategic communications. NASA’s products are a de facto refutation of claims of American decline, and should be used as such. U.S. space achievements such as the return of the X-37B or the departure of the Voyager spacecraft from the solar system (marking the farthest distance any man-made object has ever traveled) should be far more publicized worldwide.
*Rely on American strengths. A few weeks before the Shenzhou mission, a Dragon spacecraft - operated by SpaceX Corp. - resupplied the International Space Station. It was the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS. The United States should encourage the commercial sector, ever intent on reducing costs, to play a greater role. Space exploration arguably requires the government; the business of space exploitation, whether resupplying the ISS or promoting space tourism, does not.
*Be cautious in engaging in space cooperation and interaction. Many Americans embrace the idea of international cooperation in space, especially when it comes to manned missions. But China’s emphasis on indigenous development suggests that Beijing will focus more on political than budgetary burden-sharing. It also suggests that China will pursue technological “cooperation” that favors itself in any joint space ventures, such as demanding establishment of R&D facilities in China and preferential transfers of technology. Equally important, Chinese interest in legal warfare should make the U.S. wary of creating new international covenants or codes of conduct regarding space. Beijing may well try to use such instruments to constrain American efforts to prepare for potential space conflicts. Cooperation needs to be mutually beneficial.
The late-arriving entry from the Far East must be taken as a serious - and tough - player in the international competition to tame “the final frontier.”
• Dean Cheng is a research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.