Following the two launches of the U.S. X-37B space plane, a number of news stories this fall (here and here) have speculated about how quickly China might catch up with the U.S. by developing its own “Shenlong” space plane. While Chinese interest in space planes is long-standing and well documented, the recent reports seem to derive their sense of timeliness and urgency from a May 2012 post by Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins in their blog China Sign Post which claims the Shenlong had a test flight in January 2011.
But in fact the evidence that the Shenlong actually did have this test flight is quite shaky and should be examined much more closely before using it to conclude anything about the China’s progress. The evidence and sources in the China Sign Post article are unreliable. The article states that its assertion is based on “multiple Chinese-language media outlets,” but the sources given in the article are three links that lead to copies of the same broadcast of a video from a television show, and a photograph obtained from the “Chinese internet” of a slide on a computer screen. The article translates the slide as saying (in Chinese) “China’s trans-atmospheric vehicle tested successfully.”
In addition, the article claims that the Shanxi network station in China announced a “successful flight test,” yet according to my colleague Gregory Kulacki, that claim is contradicted by the article’s own evidence. The TV clip it links to is not from Shanxi TV, as cited, but from Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV. Moreover, the Phoenix TV reporter specifically states there was no announcement from Shanxi TV of a successful flight test. Instead the reporter explains these reports are based on a single line at the top of a cardboard poster displayed at what looks to be a public event, presumably the photo included in the China Sign Post piece. The reporter also states that speculation that the poster is referring to a successful test of a Chinese space plane originates from “interest on the internet.”
The authors of the China Sign Post article did not respond to a request for other sources they might have.
Although a space plane competition makes an interesting story, readers should retain their skepticism about the pace of this race and what is at the finish line. The U.S. X-37B space plane doesn’t provide a new, better, or more efficient means to do anything in space, and the evidence that China is nipping at the U.S. Air Force’s heels is slim.
Note added on December 13:
The authors of the China Sign Post article point out that they don’t actually claim the Shenlong had a test flight in January 2011. They instead assert that:
“Multiple Chinese-language media outlets state that on 8 January 2011, China completed a test flight of the Shenlong (神龙/Divine Dragon) spaceplane.”
They also asked me to point to a second piece they wrote on the Shenlong in August that gives a fuller picture of their thinking on the space plane issue.
This, however, does not change our conclusion. The AOL Defense article that is the basis of my blog post assessed the material in the May and August articles and found they fail to provide “multiple Chinese-language media” sources stating China completed a test flight. It also finds that the single Hong Kong media source they do provide specifically states the Shanxi TV station did NOT confirm a successful test flight.
Because many U.S. observers won’t be able to assess the credibility of such a claim independently, critical assessment of these sources is particularly important.