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CZ-2F launch of Shenzhou 5
While some in the West see China’s space program as a competitor racing the US, the Chinese themselves appear more interested at becoming part of “the club” with its civil space program. (credit: Xinhua)

A place for China’s mat in space

For the last several years, some in the US and elsewhere have warned that China has the potential to land humans on the Moon before NASA is able to return under its current timelines. On several occasions, then-NASA administrator Mike Griffin warned that China had the ability to beat America to the Moon. “I will be surprised if the United States is back on the Moon before China is on the Moon,” Griffin said in one speech in January 2008 (see “Defending Constellation”, The Space Review, February 4, 2008). Others have warned that the US is in a new space race with China, one that the US was in danger of losing.

“What we tried to do is reconstruct the decision-making from their perspective,” Lewis said.

However, for there to be a race, there have to be at least two participants, and while some in the US may think that China is a competitor, it’s less obvious that the Chinese government views itself in such a competition. In A Place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program, 1956–2003, a monograph published last week by the American Academy of Arts and Scences, Gregory Kulacki and Jeffrey G. Lewis argue an examination of key episodes in the history of China’s civil space program suggests that China’s ambitions may be not to compete with the US but instead be considered an equal.

Kulacki and Lewis based their paper on a detailed study of documents from the history of the Chinese space program that have recently become available, ranging from memoirs to personal papers. “What we sought to do was to take that information… and really try to present what would be reflective of how the Chinese view what they have tried to do since the late 1950s in space,” Lewis said at a Capitol Hill luncheon July 30th organized by the Academy to mark the release of that and other space policy papers. “What we tried to do is reconstruct the decision-making from their perspective.”

A comprehensive analysis was beyond the scope of this paper, so Kulacki and Lewis looked at three key episodes in the program’s history: the launch of China’s first satellite, the launch of China’s first geosynchronous satellite, and the development of the Shenzhou human spaceflight program. “It does give you a flavor of how the Chinese have had to make these decisions and the sort of investment and effort that went into the Chinese space program,” Lewis said.

China’s space program had its origins with the launch of Sputnik, which so impressed Mao Zedong that he decided several months later that China would develop and launch its own satellite—and he would not settle for a modest one. “If we’re going to throw one up there then throw a big one, one that weighs at least two tons,” Mao said. Alluding to the small size of the first American satellite, Explorer 1, he added, “Something like that chicken egg of the Americas, I won’t do it!”

That was a tall order for the country, and one that became further complicated by the Great Leap Forward and, later, the Cultural Revolution. That meant, Lewis said, that plans for a very ambitious satellite, with a number of scientific payloads, were scaled down over time. “By the time the satellite actually goes up in 1970, it is completely stripped down,” Lewis said. “Its only mission is to be seen and heard.”

“But because the Chinese military provides the day-to-day management of the program, it’s not the same thing as saying that the goals and the interests and the reasons for pursuing human spaceflight are, in and of themselves, military,” Lewis said.

While politics and prestige drove China’s first satellite, its first geosynchronous satellite had more pragmatic origins. In the early 1970s three telegraph workers warned the Chinese leadership that satellite slots in GEO, allocated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), were filling up, and if China wanted to make use of that orbit it needed to reserve slots there soon. However, it wasn’t until 1978—after Deng Xiaoping consolidated power—did China begin to act.

Deng, though, decided to move forward with a GEO satellite program “for the strangest of reasons” according to Lewis: distance education, where the satellite would broadcast lessons across the country. Deng is so interested in moving forward with this program that China entered into quiet discussions with the US to purchase an American satellite. Those negotiations broke down for reasons that aren’t entirely clear: one possibility is that China wanted a satellite that could incorporate Chinese components, while the US instead offered an existing satellite built by Hughes. China ended up developing its own satellite and, after the first satellite was stranded in a low orbit because of an upper stage failure (and thus declared an “experimental” satellite by the Chinese) placed one in GEO in 1984.

China’s interest in human spaceflight dated back to the mid-1960s, when China started developing a program to launch a man into orbit by the end of 1973. That program ran afoul of financial problems as well as political intrigue: the mysterious death of Chinese defense minister Lin Biao, who had close ties to the air force, from which China’s original astronaut corps had been recruited. A few months after Lin’s death Mao disbanded the corps, saying that “we should take care of affairs here on earth first.”

The program was resurrected after Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech in March 1983, not because China felt threatened by a US space-based missile defense system, but because of a belief that science and technology had to play a greater role in national development. While the Chinese government endorsed a human spaceflight program in 1986, the bureaucracy effectively blocked work on it for five years. A senior Chinese military official, Lewis said, had an unexplained change of heart that allowed the program to go forward. “It can’t be said that going ahead with a human space flight program is a wise decision,” premier Li Peng reportedly said, according to the paper, “but it is a decision that must be made.”

That analysis of the past is only a “rough guide” to the present, Lewis noted, but it does provide some insights into how the Chinese space program—or at least its civil component—operates, and challenge some conventional wisdom in the West about it. One example Lewis discussed is the claim that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “runs” the Chinese space program. “I should say that ‘runs’ is a word that has no precise bureaucratic meaning,” he said. The PLA, he said, does provide “day-to-day management” of the program, something that dates back to the 1960s when the military consolidated control of the program to insulate it from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

“The PLA in China is probably still, for all of its corruption, the most competent, capable institution in the country,” Lewis said. “But because the Chinese military provides the day-to-day management of the program, it’s not the same thing as saying that the goals and the interests and the reasons for pursuing human spaceflight are, in and of themselves, military.” He said that in many cases it has been “individual policy entrepreneurs”, like scientists and engineers, who have managed to battle the bureaucracy to push for programs.

“If all they really want is a place for their mat,” Lewis concluded, “I think the rest of us can scoot over.”

A review of these episodes in the history of the Chinese space program also reveals a more general theme about why China has pursued these efforts. That theme can be summed up in a single phrase: “a place for one’s mat”, a Chinese saying roughly analogous to “a seat at the table.” That approach is very different from the origins of the US and Soviet space programs, Lewis noted. “The dominant metaphor during the Cold War for space was a race,” he said. “A race is something where you have a winner, and if you have a winner you have a loser. That’s not the metaphor that the Chinese use, at least internally to themselves to describe what they’re doing.”

Instead, the Chinese approach has been more akin to joining a club—a seat at the table. “A corollary of that is that the Chinese take their technical cues from the countries that are already members of the club,” Lewis said. “So I think over and over again what we see is not so much the Chinese racing as we see them copying.”

Since that approach doesn't imply a zero-sum competition, it does leave open the door for cooperation between the US and China, cooperation that largely is absent today. “I find it so interesting that China is a major spacefaring state and we have essentially no relationship with that program whatsoever at a civil space level,” he said.

There’s no single thing that the US can do to change that, he added; it’s instead “lots of little things” that have to be done over time to build up trust and confidence on both sides. “From an American perspective I might think about setting the long-term goal of getting the Chinese involved in the space station, provided we don’t plunk it in the ocean,” he said, alluding to current—and controversial—NASA plans to deorbit the station in 2016.

“If all they really want is a place for their mat,” Lewis concluded, “I think the rest of us can scoot over.”