Exclusive: China’s Ambition – Eclipse America in Space

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS October 9, 2008

On September 25th, China launched a manned orbital space mission from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu province. The launch was moved up from its original date in late October. The Shenzhou-7 space module, with three astronauts on board, landed safely by parachute on Sept. 28 in China's northern grasslands after a 68-hour flight. The mission included the first ever spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut. Chinese President Hu Jintao was present for the launch, and Premier Wen Jiabao was at mission control when the capsule landed.

China became the third country to send a person into space in 2003. In 2005, the country sent two more astronauts on a five-day flight on Shenzhou VI. The nation's first lunar probe, Chang'e-1, blasted off on a Long March 3A carrier rocket last October from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan Province. Beijing plans to build a space station by 2017 and perform a manned moon landing by 2020. The last American moon landing was in 1972.

Commenting on Beijing's decision to launch early, Dr. Morris Jones, an Australian space analyst and writer, told ABC News, "They are using manned space exploration as a political demonstration of their legitimacy." The mission will keep China in the global media spotlight and showcase its technical prowess, important factors in maintaining the post-Olympic nationalistic glow, Jones said.

Beijing's space ambitions are an indicator that China is serious about becoming a "peer competitor" to the United States. Some commentators have belittled the Chinese effort as being far behind the achievements of the America space program. Yet, no one else besides the Russians - not even the supposedly more advanced Japanese or Europeans, has accomplished these feats. Nor should Americans be very smug about their early lead in space exploration, given how they have let that advantage wane.

Leaked e-mails sparked a story in the Washington Post (Sept. 14th) about the warnings NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has tried to make about China. Griffin claimed that the Office of Management and Budget heavily edited a statement he was submitting to Congress about Beijing's space ambitions. "A Chinese landing on the moon prior to our own return will create a stark perception that the U.S. lags behind not only Russia, but also China, in space," he wrote. The OMB deleted that passage and several others before it went to Congress. The heavy OMB edits of Griffin's comments on China were made in March after Griffin appeared before the House Science and Technology Committee in February on NASA's budget request. He was asked to supply additional information to the committee, which had to be cleared with OMB.

The problem is not just that China is rising, but that America is falling. NASA will have no way to fly its astronauts into space after the shuttles are retired in 2010, because a replacement spacecraft will not be ready until at least 2015. America will have to pay Russia to supply the international space station. Such a turn of events would not only embarrassing but geopolitically tricky given the revived Cold War rhetoric between Washington and Moscow in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia. The notion of building an "international" space station rather than a U.S. station was an early sign that Washington wanted to shift the costs of space exploration to other nations, even when others were behind the U.S. in both technology and economic strength. NASA's 2008 budget is a mere $17.3 billion out of total Federal spending exceeding $3 trillion. Indeed, NASA's mission of advancing the knowledge and reach of mankind has received less this year than the $29 billion the Federal Reserve loaned JPMorgan Chase & Company for the bailout of the failed Bear Stearns investment bank.

The NASA shuttles were designed in the 1970s. Their onboard computers have been outpaced by what is available to teenagers in their home video game systems. Their engines and structural features predate the leaps in engineering and material science that have taken place in recent decades. The U.S. has been running on momentum, rather than any new energy or desire. The technology now available to a new entrant like China could close the gap in capabilities very quickly. Indeed, the day before the Shenzhou VII, the FBI arrested Shu Quan-Sheng, Chinese-born physicist in Newport News, Virginia, on charges of illegally exporting space launch technical data and services to China beginning in 2003. Shu Quan-Sheng, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was accused of being part of China's "systematic effort to upgrade their space exploration and satellite technology capabilities by providing technical expertise and foreign technology acquisition," according to an FBI statement.

The stirring vision of giant space stations, commercial shuttle flights and extensive moon bases given to the public in the classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey has become a sad testimony to three decades of lost opportunities. I have seen this once great American spirit of adventure reborn in China. Attending the Zhuhai airshow in 2004, I was amazed by the displays of how China plans to land on the Moon and exploit its resources, before moving farther into space. I grew up in a confident America animated by similar futuristic thinking, but that drive has faded.

China's manned space program is explicitly military in orientation. Commenting on China's first manned orbital flight in 2003, People's Daily claimed, "Manned spacecraft can carry out missions of reconnaissance and surveillance better and enable the military to deploy, repair and assemble military satellites that could monitor and direct and control military forces on Earth." Though clearly linked to military space projects, NASA is charted as a civilian organization. In many circles, the hope has been that the exploration of space can be done in peaceful ways far different than the exploration of Earth. There are few such illusions in China. Beijing's manned-space program is placed within the General Armament Department. Chinese state-run TV has shown Defense Minister Gen. Cao Gangchuan speaking with Chinese astronauts in orbit, and has identified Cao as head of the space program.

Gen. Cao came up through China's rapidly expanding military-industrial complex. Prior to becoming Minister of Defense, Cao was director of the General Armament Department, having moved from heading the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND) when the departments were reorganized. He had taken over COSTIND after a series of satellite rocket failures, and since then every space launch has been a success. This improvement has been due in large part to the illegal aid given the Chinese missile program by American corporations Hughes Aerospace and Loral, who along with Lockheed-Martin, have provided Beijing with communications satellites and associated technology. In early 2000 the U.S. fined Lockheed $13 million for violating U.S. export control laws in relation to this case. Yet, it was the inadequate investment by the U.S. in its own space program that drove American firms into the arms of China for satellite services. The Long March rockets used to launch satellites, however, are also the basis for Beijing's growing arsenal of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

Gen. Cao has also been a key link between Chinese and Russian industry. Moscow has sold China an array of advanced weapons in recent years as well as space-related technology. Gen. Cao has continued the work of his COSTIND predecessor, General Ding Henggao, who expressed the central Chinese view that "world competition is essentially about comprehensive national power, and the key is the competition in science and technology." American leaders need to embrace the same principle of comprehensive national power and refocus on the real task of advancing science and industry, rather than allow the U.S. economy to be decimated further by the paper illusions of Wall Street.

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in defense and trade issues. E-mail him at HawkinsUSA@aol.com.

blog comments powered by Disqus

FSM Archives

10 year FSM Anniversary