The New Space Race

After a series of successful rocket launches and a two-man space mission, China is becoming a space superpower, writes Tom Pattinson

After China’s successful June launch of the Long March 7 rocket, Fabio Favata, head of the programme coordination office at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) directorate of science, observed that, “China is developing very rapidly into one of the major space players.” Just four months later, China’s Central Military Commission announced that “China [has] transition[ed] from a major player in space, to a major power in space.”

The commission issued this statement after the successful launch of the new Long March 5 heavy rocket, capable of lifting 25 tonnes into low Earth orbit. This comes just weeks after two Chinese astronauts were sent into space for a month-long stint aboard a space laboratory.

China’s 2013 soft landing of an unmanned rover on the moon was the first of its kind since 1976. This made China only the third, after America and Russia, to soft-land spacecraft on the moon’s surface. In 2014, China sent a probe around the moon and back, and in 2018, plans to retrieve soil samples from the dark side. This is thought to confirm rumours that Project 921, as the country’s manned space programme is codenamed, is to send a man to the moon.

In the summer of 2020, when the location of Mars in relation to Earth is optimum for launches, there will be a literal space race as the United States, China, United Arab Emirates, Europe, and Russia all have planned Mars missions. China is currently in pole position.

China’s space ambitions are certainly grand. By 2022, the country plans to have a permanently manned space station in service. The successful launch of the Long March 5 from a newly built launch site in Hainan is another major piece of the jigsaw that will enable the 60-tonne Chinese space station to enter orbit.

Around the same time this station will be operational, the International Space Station may run out of funding. The current agreements end in 2024, and there are no concrete plans to move forward, which could cause a problem for NASA. In 2011, America’s congress ruled that NASA should not work bilaterally with anyone from China over national security concerns. America’s fear of China’s militarisation of space locked China out of the International Space Station. This could come back to haunt America if China controls the only operational space station. However, China has said it would welcome other space agencies to its station.

“We are the newcomers in space science, and don’t have much experience,” Wang Chi of the National Space Science Centre, Chinese Academy of Sciences told The Guardian.  “International collaborations are the shortcut for China to catch up with the world. In addition, science, especially space science, should be the responsibility of all humans around the globe. International collaboration is the effective way to obtain the maximum science return from any space mission.”  

Whilst countries such as India, Japan, and the UAE are building their own space programmes, America and Russia are spending less on theirs. Funding to NASA as a percentage of federal budget was 0.49 percent in 2013. This is the lowest it has ever been, and just a fraction of the 4.41 percent it was at the height of the space race in 1966.  

But America’s annual space budget still dwarfs that of China’s, at $39.3 billion compared to China’s $6.1 billion. Russia’s has dropped to around $5 billion a year. According to Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College, American space technology is still “hands down the best in the world.” But, as she told CNN, the US lacks the political will to fund an ambitious manned spaceflight programme. China’s is the pride of the nation.

"In terms of perception, America has already ceded its leadership in exploration to China," she said.

Tech giants in the US are helping to taking over from where the government has left off, with Google, Blue Origin and Space X among contenders to be the first to take commercial passengers into space.

So why is China so keen to get ahead in space? One reason is the natural resources believed to be there. As well supplies of water, there is helium-3 – a non-radioactive fusion fuel that is a clean alternative to nuclear power. It is thought there is enough helium-3 to power the earth for 10,000 years.

The spillover benefits to the military are also noted. A 2015 US congressional report explained how “for China’s military, the use of space power can facilitate long-range strikes, guide munitions with precision, improve connectivity, and lead to greater jointness across its armed forces.”

Spy satellites and China’s Aolong 1 (Roaming Dragon), which is capable of destroying satellites, have caused America some concerns. However, the importance of national pride is a major reason for China’s lofty space ambitions. Alongside the Belt and Road international economic corridors, the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea, and China’s growing influence on the economies and governments of the world, the space programme is another reason nations might pivot from West to East.

Cutbacks to NASA following the 2008 financial crisis led to funding being withdrawn for joint projects with the ESA, which, along with other space agencies, is increasingly looking for new partners. China’s openness and willingness to cooperate may well see Europe look East in their new voyage of discovery.