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Chinese space station proposal
An illustration of a proposed Chinese space station planned for by 2020. (credit: Chinese Society of Astronautics)

The new path to space: India and China enter the game

Imagine for a moment that the Cold War never happened. Suppose that Joseph Stalin had suffered an aneurism a week after the end of World War 2 and that his successors, although not exactly friendly toward the West, chose a far less antagonistic relationship. No ICBMs, no technological competition, no Space Race.

Would humans be in orbit right now? Would any country have launched anybody into space considering the immense costs and the lack of a compelling political rationale?

This is the kind of counterfactual argument that makes historians sputter. It has too many variables and cannot really tell you much. But we do know that the Cold War caused the United States and the Soviet Union to rush to outdo each other in spaceflight, forcing each to launch faster and seek to produce “firsts” in the Space Race. Without the Cold War, human spaceflight would have developed along a more normal trajectory.

But what is “normal” anyway? Is there even a way to measure it? Fortunately, China’s entry into human spaceflight and India’s newly stated desire to have a human spaceflight program allows us to consider this subject from a slightly different perspective. In the past couple of weeks a number of public talks by Indian and Chinese space officials as well as American observers of the Chinese space program have shed some new light on this issue.

India in space

On October 6, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) sponsored a panel discussion with the National Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS) at AAAS headquarters in Washington, DC. NIAS is an Indian think tank based in Bangalore, and the discussion consisted of three presentations on the Indian space program, the future of the Indian nuclear program, and the need for professional accreditation of scientists. The presentations were followed by a panel discussion including the three presenters and three other NIAS representatives.

China’s entry into human spaceflight and India’s newly stated desire to have a human spaceflight program allows us to consider the subject of human spaceflight from a slightly different perspective.

The first speaker was Krishnaswami Kasturirangan, the director of NIAS and a member of the Indian Parliament. Kasturirangan was chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) for nine years and Secretary to the government of India in the Department of Space. He earlier served as the director of the ISRO Satellite Centre where he oversaw activities related to the development of new generation spacecraft such as INSAT-2 and the Indian Remote Sensing Satellites IRS-1A and 1B as well as scientific satellites.

Kasturirangan gave a fast-paced overview of the Indian space program. The program began in the 1960s—what he dubbed the “initiation phase”—and continued in the 1970s, or “experimental phase.” The 1980s were when India finally entered its “operational phase” where its satellites were capable of serving the social priorities of the country. As a poor country, India could not treat spaceflight as a luxury—the satellites it developed were directly tied to the social needs of the Indian people. Kasturirangan noted that the United States assisted India in this regards: in the early 1970s the United States sponsored a demonstration program using an American geostationary satellite to provide telemedicine resources to rural doctors. (See “India and the US: partners or rivals in space?”, The Space Review, February 11, 2008)

Telemedicine is particularly important in India, Kasturirangan explained, because 98% of the people from rural areas who become doctors leave those areas, resulting in a small number of doctors with the required training to serve a large number of people. Telemedicine can therefore bring some of the medical resources of India’s thriving urban areas to remote villages. Also important is remote sensing for agricultural assessment. According to Kasturirangan, India can now predict with 90% accuracy the national crop output one month before harvest. For a country that in its past frequently faced starvation and malnutrition, this is a vital resource. He noted that in 1978 Indian remote sensing satellites could achieve one kilometer resolution; today they can achieve one meter resolution.

Now that India has not only developed significant space capabilities but also experienced substantial economic growth, the Indian space program has entered into what Kasturirangan describes as its “expansion phase.” India can afford the luxuries of space science and possibly even human spaceflight. The country’s first lunar spacecraft, Chandrayaan-1, is scheduled for launch later this month. The government has also created the Antrix Corporation to market Indian space capabilities around the world. The country’s next goals are development of a heavy launch vehicle, lunar exploratory missions, a two-stage-to-orbit reusable launch vehicle, human spaceflight, and further international cooperation.

During the panel discussion, several members of the audience asked Kasturirangan and two of his colleagues questions about the Indian space program. His colleagues included S. Chandrashekar, a professor of corporate strategy at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, as well as a 20-year veteran of ISRO. Chandrashekar’s recent work at NIAS includes an assessment of Pakistani and Chinese ballistic missile capabilities. In response to a question about Pakistan’s missiles he said that it is clear that they are not entirely based upon Chinese technology and that Pakistan clearly has significant ballistic missile design expertise of its own. Chandrashekar also said that his assessment of China’s missiles disagrees with that of the United States. For instance, he said that while the Americans have concluded that the Chinese DF-5 ICBM is a two-stage missile, his group has concluded that it is actually a three-stage missile. His research also disagrees with the American assessment of China’s newer DF-31 ICBM.

Most of the space questions were directed at Kasturirangan, who was asked about India’s plans for human spaceflight. Kasturirangan explained that right now India’s government has not officially approved a human spaceflight program. Although he did not say so, other sources have indicated that India will pursue a two-person capsule. ISRO is currently studying technology options and questions and he rattled off a long list, including life support, reentry, tracking and human-rating a launch vehicle, clearly indicating that he was personally familiar with the studies. Only after the Indian space agency has answered these questions and defined the kind of vehicle they want to build, its costs, and the timeframe for the first human space launch, will ISRO officials take those plans to the Indian Parliament for formal approval. Simply put, India’s human space program has not yet been fully defined or approved.

Kasturirangan said that ISRO has not yet made a decision concerning launch vehicles, but is considering a 2.5-stage rocket for carrying a manned spacecraft into orbit. ISRO is studying two possibilities, the current Geostationary Launch Vehicle (or GSLV), which has flown successfully several times, or the planned GSLV Mark 3, which is scheduled for first launch in 2010. The Mark 3 will be more capable, but as of yet it is only a paper vehicle and therefore higher risk.

India’s human space program has not yet been fully defined or approved.

When asked about India’s goals in space science beyond the Chandrayaan lunar mission, Kasturirangan listed several objectives: developing chemical analysis capabilities for future lunar landers, sample return from the Moon, international cooperation on a robotic Mars mission, and the Astrosat observatory, which is to be capable of observations from the ultraviolet to high energy X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Although he is not currently involved in decision making concerning the Indian space program, it was apparent from the clarity and quickness of his answers not only that Kasturirangan was very familiar with the current state of Indian spaceflight plans, but that Indian space officials are putting a great deal of effort into planning their next moves in the expansion phase of Indian spaceflight.

China in space

On October 8, several American space experts spoke at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC on China’s space program. The speakers were Dean Cheng, of the Center for Naval Analysis; Kevin Pollpeter, China Program Manager of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis; and Scott Pace, the new director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and former NASA associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation.

The panel discussion had the rather awkward title of Pandas in Orbit. Heritage is a conservative think tank, but none of the speakers were particularly ideological, although they did not reflect viewpoints recently expressed by some other speakers (for instance, Joan Johnson-Freese and Theresa Hitchens) calling for more cooperative engagement with China.

Unfortunately, the Heritage event again reflected some of the ignorance and myths that surround China’s space program—opinions not expressed by the speakers, but by Heritage’s moderator and some members of the audience. The moderator once again repeated the mistaken claim that China plans to land a man on the Moon by 2017, a myth resulting from confusing China’s stated plans for a robotic lunar sample return mission with plans for a human lunar lander. Several of the questions posed to the speakers also repeated some of the erroneous claims made about China’s space weapons capability, including the charge that China “blinded” an American satellite with a laser, and that China is developing a “parasitic microsatellite” capability. The laser incident was exaggerated—in fact, the United States government never protested the incident to the Chinese government, and obviously did not interpret it as an attack—and the parasitic microsatellite claim has been effectively debunked. (See “Paper dragon: the Pentagon’s unreliable statements on the Chinese space program”, The Space Review, June 23, 2008)

Fortunately, whatever ignorance was reflected by the moderator and audience was counterbalanced by the informative speakers. They all emphasized the point that it is a common mistake to view China’s space developments in isolation from its other activities. China does not simply have a “space program,” the country’s leadership views space as part of its goals in many areas, including economic development, national security, and diplomacy.

Dean Cheng explained that the recent Shenzhou 7 spaceflight demonstrated what observers of the Chinese space program have realized for at least half a decade now, that the People’s Republic of China is a space power possessing the “full range of space mission capabilities.” These include the ability to produce, launch, and track satellites on its own. The country has a range of indigenously developed satellite systems including communications, meteorological, Earth-imaging and navigation satellites.

According to Cheng, the PRC sees space as promoting “zonghe guojia liliang,” or “comprehensive national security.” It improves the national economy both by raising China’s level of science and technology and generating high-tech jobs, and serves national security, both through military security and diplomacy.

It is this latter point that often gets ignored in the West. The PRC uses space as a diplomatic tool, Cheng noted, citing several recent examples including satellite sales to Venezuela and Nigeria, the sharing of satellite data, and China’s membership in the Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization. Potential future efforts include offering insurance for space missions and training foreign astronauts.

Space, according to Pollpeter, is a method for China to achieve “great power status.”

Of course, it is China’s January 2007 ASAT test that gained the most attention in the West. China’s view of the military value of space has evolved substantially over the past two decades. The 1991 American experience in Desert Shield/Desert Storm had a major effect upon China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), convincing the PLA leadership that future wars will involve joint forces, will be high-tech, and rely upon precision weapons. The military will rely on information for operational coordination, target location, and weapons guidance.

Cheng said that more recent wars have continued to shape China’s view of space and in recent years the PLA has begun to shift from a view of space as a source of information to a “key battleground in its own right.” He cited the example of the PLA Encyclopedia, which in 1997 downplayed the importance of space, but by 2002 rated it as a vital battleground.

In light of this evolving viewpoint of space’s importance, China’s manned spaceflight missions remind the world of the PRC’s space capabilities even if the human spaceflight program has no overt military goals.

Kevin Pollpeter focused more on the economic aspects of China’s space ascendancy, a rise which has been rapid in the past few years. He noted that since 2001 China had flown three human spaceflight missions, launched a lunar mission, conducted ASAT tests, and orbited a radar satellite, a remote sensing constellation, an ocean monitoring satellite, a communications relay satellite, and exported two satellites. China had also achieved launcher reliability at international standards and has not experienced a launch vehicle failure since 1996, possibly due to the illegal assistance of several American companies.

Space, according to Pollpeter, is a method for China to achieve “great power status.” Chinese officials believe that it is a technology driver that can propel China’s economy and facilitate innovation in pharmaceuticals and metallurgy. It can also provide other economic benefits, like increases in quality control testing and improving standards for selecting and training management personnel.

The Shenzhou human spaceflight program in particular is a driving force. Pollpeter noted that the average age of Shenzhou personnel is 36 and the average age of their Chang’e robotic lunar mission personnel is 33. Pollpeter compared this to many NASA projects where the average age is in the fifties and 25 percent of the US aerospace workforce is eligible to retire.

If China has been making great strides in spaceflight in the past decade, the United States has been either standing in place or shooting itself in both feet. Pollpeter noted that recent American national space policy and US Air Force space documents are seen by many foreign leaders as unnecessarily provocative and have contributed to a perception around the world that the United States government overemphasizes national security applications and intends to weaponize space. Pollpeter concluded by saying that China’s rise as a space power will have negative consequences for the United States. Simply increasing the American government’s space budget is not enough and solutions have to come from many areas. Although the recent success of SpaceX’s Falcon launch vehicle demonstrated that American industry can accomplish great things, the US government will have to take the lead in improving America’s space capabilities relative to China.

page 2: Chinese lunar planning >>