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  • America’s Response to China’s Challenge in Space

    Sometime in the next week, most likely this weekend, China will launch Shenzhou-IX, its fourth crewed mission into space.

    If all proceeds according to plan, this mission will see the Chinese engage in their first manned docking, as the Shenzou-IX spacecraft links with the orbiting Tiangong-1 space lab. The Chinese crew, reportedly including their first female astronaut, will then spend a week to 10 days in space, making this the longest mission for any Chinese astronaut.

    This mission highlights China’s ongoing efforts in space. In the 2011 Chinese space white paper, one announced goal was “100 rockets and 100 satellites” during the ongoing Twelfth Five Year Plan (2011–2015). For 2012 alone, the Chinese are hoping to launch 30 satellites over the course of 21 launches.

    An unstated objective for the Chinese is to equal or surpass the United States in space. In 2011, the Chinese launched 19 payloads into space, compared with 18 U.S. launches. This was the first time in history that China had more launches than the U.S. did.

    Meanwhile, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, the U.S. no longer has the ability to place its own astronauts into orbit, currently relying on the Russian space program to reach the International Space Station.

    The Shenzhou-IX mission will provide China with badly needed experience in both docking and prolonged exposure to microgravity. Both are necessary elements for the Chinese space program, which has indicated that it will field a space station by 2020 and announced “studies” in a crewed mission to the moon. The latter is a clear signal that Beijing intends to eventually have its astronauts plant the flag of the PRC on the lunar surface.

    Chinese advances in manned space are meanwhile being complemented by improvements in its broader portfolio of space capabilities. China is building not only the Long March-5, a heavy lift booster, but also the Long March-6 and -7, which will provide it with a full range of modernized launch systems capable of reaching low, medium, and geosynchronous orbits.

    The Chinese space white paper also declared the intention of developing a high-resolution, multi-spectral earth observation system; in short, China will field its own spy satellites.

    For the U.S., the question is whether there will be a coherent response to the Chinese challenge.

    Posted in International [slideshow_deploy]

    5 Responses to America’s Response to China’s Challenge in Space

    1. Joe Gillin says:

      America’s implementation of a forward looking plan for exploring space and developing its economic potential appears at first glance to be a mix of hesitancy and chaos. The end of Space Shuttle flights and abrupt changes and conflicting priorities within the Administration and within Congress don’t seem to stir much confidence in forward progress. However, recent events indicate that America’s traditional strengths are coming into play in forging an exciting new era in space.

      The recent flight of the Dragon spacecraft, developed by the SpaceX corporation, to the International Space Station (ISS) demonstrates that we have resumed a capability to carry cargo to and from the ISS. NASA is following a more commercially oriented model in engaging SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to provide this cargo service using US industry and creating jobs in the US.

    2. Joe Gillin says:

      (continued from previous comment.)

      Looking ahead to providing a new capability to carry Americans into space, NASA is engaging SpaceX and several other new and established players to develop competing designs of rockets and spacecraft to carry crews to and from the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon is being modified to safely carry people and will be launched on the Falcon 9 rocket which has now flown successfully three times. Boeing and several other companies plan to use the well proven Atlas V. NASA is currently planning on at least two of these vehicles to be ready to fly to the ISS by 2017 but it’s possible the companies may be ready sooner. Fostering this commercially oriented industry for near Earth orbit will allow NASA to focus more of its attention and resources on deep space exploration goals.

      And ISS may not be their only destination. Bigelow Aerospace is developing habitable modules that can be assembled into private space stations which can be leased to industry or other nations to achieve various objectives in space.

    3. Michael Chow says:

      Why is this a challenge from China?

      I don't remember the American space program ever described as a challenge to the USSR.

    4. Joe Gillin says:

      (continued from previous comments. May not have loaded correctly last night.)

      The world changed on April 24 when the first serious business venture to access resources beyond Earth was announced. Planetary Resources is the company backed by several well known billionaires that plans to methodically survey, prospect and mine Near Earth Asteroids (NEAs) for various resources for use in space and on Earth (rare platinum group metals in particular). This venture not only promises to yield practical economic benefits but also challenges the “Limits to Growth” psychology of recent decades that has had serious negative and sometimes lethal consequences for societies around the globe.

      So US public policy should focus on fostering these emerging industries and extending the entrepreneurial approach to expanding to the Moon, Mars and other destinations. These new industries will not only maintain US leadership with respect to China and other nations but can help spur a new era of economic growth and job creation.

    5. danwoodard says:

      The question is whether we should work with China in space, or against China. Should we try to build bridges, as we did with ISS, or should we try to start a new Cold War? The Apollo Program was a challange to the USSR, Kennedy made that very clear in his address to the joint session of Congress in 1963. But Kennedy was not looking for a fight, he was faced with an ideological conflict that had created a perilous race in nuclear arms; Kennedy was attempting to substitute a symbolic contest that would not destroy the world. Today, by choosing to work with China in space, we can help to avoid a new Cold War and perhaps save a future generations from decades of conflict.

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