China Takes Page from US Playbook on Space Politics

November 18, 2011
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

While the race to beat the Soviet Union to the moon may have been one of the most memorable experiences of the old Cold War, few would argue that the US human space flight program was pursued as a means to gain a military advantage. The effort certainly produced a variety of technologies and capabilities that could be applied to military pursuits. But the “space race” was political. The winner was assumed to be able to lay claim to superiority in the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of planet earth over the relative merits of capitalism and communism.

Originally conceived as part of a larger effort to insure the overall development of Chinese science and technology could keep pace with the United States, the Chinese space program now appears to have added an explictly political mission.

In an interview conducted on the floor of China’s space flight control center in Beijing just after the successful first test of the docking mechanism China developed for use in constructing its space station, Wang Yongzhi (王永志), a senior figure in the Chinese aerospace community, revealed that China’s political leaders imposed a set of political requirements on the space station planners.

In the video above, which I translated – roughly – for the benefit of non-Chinese language speakers, Wang opens by saying the Chinese political leadership “required” the mission planners to construct an “open style, national class” international space station.

Although the only Chinese public participation in the program so far is a contest to name the Chinese space station, Wang’s comments on the requirement to make the station open to Chinese society suggests the program managers may be planning to put teachers, researchers and other ordinary citizens aboard their national space station at some point in the future. In another interview conducted during the current docking mission, Zhou Jianping (周建平) Chief Engineer of the Chinese Manned Space Engineering Program, responded in the affirmative to a reporter’s question about ordinary Chinese citizens eventually being able to travel to the Chinese space station aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft.

Wang Yongzhi also noted that China’s “national” space station would be open to “friendly” international researchers. One hopes that by the time this is possible US researchers will be considered among that number, although the continued hostility of the US Congress towards the Chinese human space flight program may make that difficult if not impossible. But even if the United States is excluded from China’s space station, the Chinese government’s insistence on making its space laboratory open to the world suggests that China may intend to use its ability to access space as a political and diplomatic tool in much the same way the United States has done with its control of access to the International Space Station.

Given the possibility that China’s national space station may be the only one in orbit by the time it is completed in the early years of the next decade, it will be interesting to see how Chinese decisions about international access to its space station play out in the evolution of regional and global politics.