China recently announced it would launch its third manned spaceflight later this month.
With the US Shuttle’s planned retirement, and the Orion’s delayed development, the United States’ space presence could theoretically in the future be threatened in prestige by the Chinese. Below, I examine the Chinese space program, and possible implications for America’s space program.
China’s Plans for Space
* Space Station China plans to build a space station and a space laboratory before 2020.
* The Moon China has vague plans for putting a person on the moon by 2020, but plans are not yet official. The Economist cites Jiao Weixin of Peking University who “says China would not have the technical ability to put a man on the moon for another 20 years.” If China develops the capacity, that would put China’s moon arrival date around 2027. It appears somewhat odd to state it could take China so long to put someone on the moon, considering how they have rapidly accelerated their space program in the past five years.
Comparatively, NASA was founded in the US in 1958, conducted ASAT tests by 1959, had astronauts in space by 1962, landed “men on the moon” in 1969, and launched Skylab in 1973.
Today, China has access to superior technology than what the US possessed in the 1960s. If funding and bureaucratic will exists, I do not think it would be foolish to suggest the Chinese could feasibly reach their spaceflight goals ahead of schedule.
Assuming China’s progress tracks America’s historical progress (and it will by no means necessarily track similar milestones, for various reasons), China would be able to reach the moon eight years after China first launched manned spaceflight. That is, they could arrive by 2011-2012. No sources indicate the Chinese are attempting to achieve those dates. Still, a moon landing would be a dramatic accomplishment to highlight President Hu’s passing the baton of leadership at the 2012 Party Congress.
* Lunar Exploration
In 2007, as an intermediate step toward eventual human exploration of the moon, China sent a lunar probe. In 2009, China will send its second lunar probe, the Chang’e II. In 2012, China intends to land a moon rover vehicle. In 2017, China hopes to send a second moon rover that will land, collect soil samples, and then return to Earth (Xinhua).
Chinese Space Flight Timeline
October 2003, with the Shenzhou V’s successful journey, China became the third country to send a person into space with its own equipment.
October 2005, China sent two people into space for a five-day period on the Shenzhou VI.
January 2007, China conducted an Anti-Satellite ASAT test, becoming the third country to have successfully performed such a test (PINR).
October 24, 2007, China sent a lunar probe to the moon (Chang’e I).
Late September 2008, China will send three people into space on the Shenzhou VII. They will perform China’s first spacewalk (IHT).
How Much are the Chinese Spending?
Estimates of Chinese space expenditures vary, but the World Security Institute posted an overview of amounts. Official statements indicate the Chinese spent about $120 million on the Shenzhou V program, and claimed space program spending of $240 million a year; but those sums are almost certainly significantly underreported. More recently Chinese-government reported estimates appear to be closer to reality. China Daily, for example, claims $630 million will be invested in a new project to design a carrier rocket, the Long March V. Western reports suggest China’s annual space expenditures as between $1.2 to $3 billion, which would make Chinese space program spending comparable to Japan (~$2.1 billion) and Russia’s yearly expenditures (~$1.4 billion).
In 2005, the United States spent over $16 billion on government-sponsored space exploration, with $6 billion going toward space flight, $4 billion to the shuttle, and $500 million for flight support. (In 2007, NASA spent $16.8 billion, and in 2006 the European Space Administration spent over $4 billion.) NASA estimates the cost for “landing a crew on the Moon in 2020: [will be] $64 billion in FY2003 dollars. The $64 billion consists of $24 billion to build and operate the Crew Exploration Vehicle from FY2004-2020; plus $40 billion for the years 2011-2020 to build the lunar lander portion of that vehicle, a new launch vehicle, and operations. The $64 billion does not include the cost of robotic missions” (NASA, 4).
China is spending a good amount on space exploration, but it appears to be embarking on small practical steps rather than grandiose displays in development. China intends to perfect technology designed to traverse the lunar surface before it makes concrete plans to send human beings to the moon.
China probably could, through concerted funding and engineering, send a shuttle with humans to the moon by 2014-2017, since by then it should have a moon rover that can land and then return to Earth. However, plans appear directed toward developing technology to permit human landing on the moon for extended periods. Without development of a practical exploration vehicle, exploration of the moon might be too limited to justify significant expenditures.
For now, most of China’s space spending appears focused on satellites and spacecraft. China’s narrow focus might allow it to develop new programs much quicker. Still, without significant further investment, it is unlikely the Chinese will travel to the moon until after 2014 when resources can be refocused on exploration vehicles.
* Chinese success in space flight, coming at a time when America is drawing back space exploration programs and entering into an antagonistic cycle vis-a-vis Russia might lead to postulations that America might buy astronaut flight time from the Chinese in order to fulfill American obligations toward the International Space Station. However, this probably will not happen.
Although the following is speculation of a space-wise layman, it appears that China’s space program will develop too slowly to present a complement or competitor to NASA in the crucial period, 2010 to 2014, when NASA might benefit from a strong Chinese space-partner.
* NASA’s current Shuttle will be retired by 2010 if current policies are continued. US cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) is expected to be transported by private companies after that date. These companies include Orbital Science and SpaceX (run by the founder of PayPa1). NASA also plans to close the gap of ISS supply by “buy[ing] roughly $700 million worth of [cargo] services from Russia through 2011” (MSNBC).
American astronauts could be transported to the ISS by the Russians. But, considering recent tensions, continued cooperation with a Russian space program might be unlikely. And after 2011 when an agreement to purchase cargo from the Russians expires, NASA will likely be pressured to reach a politically safe solution to solve its cargo and astronaut supply problem.
Assuming that cargo ships are ready by delivery-date, which is by no means necessarily going to be achieved, cargo ships will be available in late 2010, early 2011. However, if the Shuttle is retired on schedule, astronauts will be unable to reach the ISS with American ships. As a stop-gap measure, astronauts might be transported on SpaceX’s cargo ships, which are being designed to be “man-rated,” but which are as yet unproven.
* Although some hoped to have NASA’s new Orion class shuttles ready for service by late 2013; the project deadline is more likely to creep toward March 2015. That makes it even more imperative for NASA to close the shuttleless gap between 2010 and 2015.
* NASA is studying feasibility of extending the current shuttles’ lives until 2015. Extension of useful lives presents problems both practical as to the shuttle maintenance, and economic since NASA hopes to divert flight money to development of its Orion-class shuttles.
* Assuming private options fail to produce, NASA might be tempted to look to China to help it fly astronauts to the ISS. However, there are problems with this scenario. China is not a partner involved with the ISS. Indeed, that appears to be a reason for Chinese plans to create a uniquely Chinese satellite. And politically, the deal could be touchy. A China-partnership might be marginally more politically acceptable than a Russia-partnership, but still, China is occasionally lambasted by Congress over human rights issues, most recently for its treatment of the T1b33tan unrest. Thus, such a partnership with China would be wrought with uncertainty. More important, China currently lacks capacity to rent or sell passage on its ships. China has its spaceflight resources quite busy putting even one space flight up each year.
Chinese Future in Space
China’s current space funding is not significant enough to pull off a near-future manned trip to the moon, or launch of a space station any time soon. Still, if funds are discovered in China’s budget for exploration and development, China could probably beat the United States back to the moon. However, China seems dedicated to a slow but steady vision of gradually increasing funds and development of space exploration. After 2015, the US will have its new Orion craft, and the Chinese will be send a land and return rover to the moon. In 2019, the US will return to the moon. In 2021 or 2022, a Chinese taikonaut might follow soon thereafter.
China’s Space Activities in 2006 (China government white paper) contains plans for the next 5-15 years and indepth discussion of China’s space achievements in fields such as satellites, and multilateral space-exploration agreements.
A powerpoint report by CRS (Congressional Research Services) on China’s Space Program.
NASA’s plan to get back to space and the moon (Popular Mechanics).
(added Sept. 26) TIME Magazine’s Sept 24th article on the Shenzhou VII.