Sputnik Revisited

, China project manager and senior analyst

Fifty-nine years ago today, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit, setting off a panic in the United States that contributed to the evolution of a “space race” between the two superpowers.

Last week, Congress held a hearing on the question of whether the United States was losing a new space race with China. Unfortunately, the witnesses seemed more interested in re-creating the alarmism of the Sputnik era than in offering Congress an accurate picture of the Chinese space program. This raises doubts about the value of the hearing’s contribution to congressional perspectives on US-China relations in space. Read more >

Bookmark and Share

Strategic Options for Chinese Space Science and Technology

, China project manager and senior analyst

Last spring the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) produced a report that included a lengthy section on the future of Chinese space science and technology. A translation with commentary is now available on the UCS website.

Read more >

Bookmark and Share

China’s Astronauts: Home from Space, Hope for the Earth

, China project manager and senior analyst

It’s happening again. Seeing the earth from space is raising our awareness, as a species, of the precious and precarious nature of life on what astronomer Carl Sagan called our “mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.” Many U.S. astronauts commented on the transformative personal experience of seeing the earth from space. Chinese astronauts are having the same experience. More importantly, they are communicating the heart of Carl Sagan’s message to the large Chinese television audiences following their accomplishments in space. Read more >

Bookmark and Share

A U.S. “Pivot” in Space?

, China project manager and senior analyst

Chinese Astronaut Yang Liwei aboard his Shenzhou V spacecraft during China’s first human space flight in October 2003. Image captured from a Chinese Central Television (CCTV) broadcast.

In a March 28 essay in The Diplomat, Scott Pace, a leading U.S. space policy expert, argues the United States should take proactive steps “to shape the international environment for the space activities that our economy and security depend on.”  One important step he suggests is to focus on Asia.

His approach appears in part to be aimed at countering Chinese influence:

“If China is able to offer pragmatic opportunities for space cooperation on its own space station or as part of efforts to send humans to the Moon, other countries will likely see it attractive to forge closer relationships with China. A shift in international space influence away from the United States and toward China would have the potential to impact a wide range of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests in space.”

As a result, he recommends the U.S. strengthen ties with allies in the region:

“A primary strategic task for the United States should be to develop and implement a national security space strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, to build on existing alliance relationship such as with Japan, Australia, and South Korea to include dual-use space technologies.”

A “pivot” in U.S. space policy aimed at countering Chinese influence would be consistent with the Obama administration’s strategic shift of U.S. economic and defense priorities toward Asia. But it also risks extending regional tensions exacerbated by the “unnecessary and counterproductive” aspects of Obama’s pivot to Asia into a vitally important global commons.

Instead of isolating China in space with the aid of a reluctant collection of Asian partners who all wish to maintain constructive relations with the world’s second largest economy, U.S. interests might be better served by an inclusive national space strategy that embraces cooperation with China. Other U.S. space policy experts note that many U.S. partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and Canada, are already urging the United States to pursue cooperation and drop its opposition to Chinese to participation in the International Space Station (ISS). They argue a U.S. invitation to China is a low-risk, cost-effective means for the United States “to retain its leadership position in the current HSF [Human Space Flight] program” and establish itself as the leading partner in a follow-on program after the ISS is retired.

A partnership with China could be developed along the same lines as was done with integrating the Russian space program into the ISS partnership. Using this model, no military-sensitive technology would be transferred. China’s economy would allow for it to fully fund its own efforts. Thus there would be little increased expense to the United States for developing this advantageous relationship.

More importantly, the image of Chinese astronauts working together with global partners, including the United States, would shift the geostrategic import of Chinese achievements in space away from national ambitions towards the more politically constructive Chinese goal of establishing China as an equal member of the international community of space-faring nations. Organizing a U.S.-led coalition of space-faring Asian nations that excludes China would have the opposite effect, and risks igniting a new and counterproductive space race pitting China against its neighbors.

Dr. Pace appears open to a more inclusive approach that should “serve the full range of U.S. interests is in the Asia-Pacific region, beginning but not limited to our traditional friends and allies such as Japan and Australia.”  The U.S. and its allies have a strong interest in constructive relations with China, which would be better served by cooperation than by competition in space.




Bookmark and Share

China Assesses the Value of Human Spaceflight

, China project manager and senior analyst

Chinese television spot of video taken by Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei posted by a Chinese blogger (English translation of subtitles added).

A crew of three Chinese astronauts recently completed a very successful 13 days in space. They docked the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft with the orbiting Tiangong 1 space lab launched in September 2011, completed numerous medical and biological tests assessing living and working conditions aboard the lab, and safely returned to earth. Despite these accomplishments, the press coverage was somewhat less sensational than past missions, even with the attention-getting headlines surrounding Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut.

A recent editorial published in the People’s Daily even sounded defensive about the Chinese government’s expenditures on human spaceflight. During the just completed Shenzhou 9 mission China Manned Space Engineering Office spokesperson and vice director Wu Ping announced that China will have spent approximately 6 billion U.S. dollars on the human program by the end of the next mission.

The editorial begins by noting:

Some people might feel that that investment in the human spaceflight program stole resources and attention from the project of improving the people’s livelihood, that the energy used to climb into space could be better used solving problems here on the ground.

Critics of the US human spaceflight program expressed the same doubts about the US program. A high profile defense of the Shenzhou program in the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper just days after a major success in space could be a sign that the Chinese public, and some members of the Party itself, are beginning to question the value of China’s decades-long quest to build a space station.

The editorial’s defense starts with the contradiction of claiming space technology “demonstrates a country’s national defense capability” while in the same sentence quoting an unidentified report from UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space that reportedly said “the use of space technology…is a shortcut to economic development because it can leap over the traditional technological development stages passed through by advanced nations.” The editorial combines hypernationalist rhetoric about space giving China a leg up in “a strategic competition between nations expanding from the surface to space” with dramatic claims of economic benefits such as “the research and development of more than 1000 new materials, 80% of which were completed under the quest for space technology.”

The strident political language of the editorial stands in contrast to some of the less scripted comments of the Chinese astronauts, who, like many astronauts before them, discuss the personal influence of seeing the earth from space, the recognition that we all inhabit a single planet and the need for greater international cooperation.

In many ways the progress of China’s space program seems to be creating echos of the social and political impacts the US space program generated in the 1960s and the 1970s. In both nations space-inspired images of national power and global connectedness continue to compete for attention in the public eye and investments from the public purse.

Bookmark and Share