Fifty years after the dawn of the Space Age, China is solidifying its position as only the third nation to launch humans in orbit.
If all goes well, three “taikonauts” will embark Thursday on a three-day Earth-orbit mission, which includes the country’s first spacewalk.
But space is no longer the domain of the US, Russia, or even China. It’s a global affair.
“It’s not two players any more. In space exploration and Earth observation, you have capabilities around the world. So the question is: How do we move forward” [together]? says Vincent Sabathier, a former official with the French Space Agency CNES and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Eleven nations launch satellites, and 50 countries are operating their own satellites. The cold-war concept of a “space race” is yielding to deepening international cooperation. China and the US are even talking about working together.
China’s latest mission is part of a carefully orchestrated program to advance the country’s technological capabilities. And it’s driven by China’s desire for “a place for [its] mat” on the international spaceflight stage, says Gregory Kulacki, who specializes in global security issues and China with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
For the United States, whose human spaceflight program is in the middle of an uneasy transition from space shuttle to Constellation program, cooperation with China has proceeded in fits and starts, analysts say.
China’s antisatellite weapon
Not surprisingly, China’s test of an antisatellite weapon in January 2007 – followed by the US Navy’s downing of a crippled US spy satellite in February – chilled cooperative overtures. Indeed, prior to China’s weapon test, members of the US-China Working Group in the US House of Representatives had expressed interest in exploring the possibility of inviting the Chinese to take part in the International Space Station (ISS) project, Dr. Kulacki says.
Recently, however, prospects for closer US-Chinese space cooperation appear to have brightened. In June, the US Treasury Department lifted sanctions against China imposed after allegations surfaced that China was helping Iran develop its missile program.
“That was important,” says Peggy Finarelli, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) official and a senior fellow at the Center for Aerospace Policy Research at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
A month later, NASA’s Michael O’Brien, assistant administrator for external relations, who is responsible for the agency’s international relations, traveled to China and met with top Chinese space officials.
They reportedly agreed to work more closely on Earth- and space-science efforts. These agreements, Ms. Finarelli says, typically precede meetings between program-specific people on individual projects.
For its part, China is increasingly integrating into global space efforts, space analysts say. It’s striving to become the satellite and launch service provider of choice to the developing world, notes David Vaccaro, senior analyst at the Futron Corporation, an aerospace consulting and market analysis firm in Bethesda, Md. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the name of the Futron Corporation.]
In May 2007, he says, the Chinese launched the Nigerian government’s NIGCOMSAT 1, which aims to provide a satellite telecommunications system across a broad swath of Africa. Beijing has collaborated with Brazil on remote sensing satellites. And it’s taking part in Europe’s Galileo project – a global navigation system similar to the US’s satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) and Russia’s emerging Glonass navigation system.
Moreover, China co-chairs, along with the US, South Africa, and the European Commission, the executive committee governing the Group on Earth Observations. The group is coordinating the establishment of a broad network of environmental monitoring systems, including satellites.
Although technologically China could be on the verge of having capabilities that would allow it to participate in the International Space Station, such a move would require a significant political decision in the US, several space policy analysts say.
To join the ISS would require changes in the way China conducts itself, suggests Scott Pace, who heads the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “The lesson from a lot of human spaceflight work is the incredible degree of transparency that’s required” in order to operate joint manned projects safely.
It took a decade of working together with the Russians after they joined the space station project in 1993 to reach a point where both sides were comfortable working with each other as truly integrated partners, he says.
Indeed, he says, a long period elapsed and a historic political shift in the former Soviet Union occurred before the first US-Soviet joint mission – Apollo-Soyuz in 1975 – took place and the US and its partners embraced Russia as a full partner in a manned-spaceflight project.
With respect to China, “people need to be fairly modest in starting, and recognize all the other things that have to be done before you take on more ambitious activities,” says Dr. Pace.
For some analysts, it’s unclear how badly China wants in. The Chinese government’s own white papers on space stress that it should develop an independent capability for human spaceflight, including a space station. And like Europe, China funds its space effort over several years at a time.
US space budget a “mess”
In speaking with Chinese space officials and aerospace-industry officials, the Chinese remain concerned that if they do become involved in projects the US leads, changes in the US budget process or in bilateral relations would “mess up their timetables,” Kulacki says.
In the end, several space policy specialists say, much of the talk of a new space race, at least on the civilian side, comes from the US, where political interests want to try to garner more money for an admittedly cash-strapped NASA. After all, they say, if China puts humans on the moon around 2020 – about the time the US plans to return – it will still be the second country in history to send people to the moon and back.
“Space is an international, highly symbolic and strategic thing,” Pace says. “It is something that follows from US foreign-policy objectives; it doesn’t drive them. It’s a mistake to take the space race term and just blindly apply it. On the other hand, it does matter if the US is not there and others are. It does matter if others have capabilities to do things that we no longer have. We should not look at this so much as a race with them but as a question to ourselves: What are we as a nation capable of, and is this still important to us.”