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Starship
SpaceX’s development of Starship may render many other launch vehicles obsolete, and has led China to revamp its own approach to launch vehicle development and exploration. (credit: John Kraus/Polaris Program)

Red Heaven: China sets its sights on the stars (part 1)


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At a conference in Hong Kong on July 24, 2021, China revealed an overhauled design for its most important future rocket: the Long March 9. Earlier images of this upcoming super-heavy-lift rocket showed a launch vehicle with a few engines at the bottom and four solid rockets strapped to its side. But Chinese rocket scientists were now showing off a very different rocket. The new Long March 9 design envisioned one larger, taller rocket with a single cluster of 16 engines at the base. With little fanfare China had just unveiled a complete transformation of its most powerful and advanced rocket, the country's key to the heavens and to competing with the United States.

China’s overhauled rocket design is a direct response to SpaceX’s innovations. During the 2010s, SpaceX disrupted the launch business with its reusable Falcon 9 rocket, ruining competitors in Europe, Russia, and China in the process. SpaceX then announced an even more revolutionary rocket: Starship. By 2021 SpaceX was well on its way to revolutionizing the industry yet again, and this time China was determined not to be left behind. After all, a quick glance over at Europe gave it a glimpse of what its future would be like if it missed the boat.

China’s overhauled rocket design is a direct response to SpaceX’s innovations.

Despite SpaceX successfully landing a Falcon 9 rocket in 2015, Europe continued to invest in the new, but non-reusable, Ariane 6 rocket. After eight years of development, its first launch is finally set for 2022. However, like the old Long March 9 design, the Ariane 6 is an expendable rocket with solid rockets strapped to its sides. This means it has no chance of competing with the Falcon 9, let alone Starship. There is also no way to make the Ariane 6 reusable because its design is incompatible with the proven technologies pioneered by SpaceX. As a result of this miscalculation, Europe is now wedded to an already outdated launch vehicle for the next decade.

The continent is scrambling to develop a reusable rocket, but no new major launch vehicle will come online until after 2030. And even once it is operational, Europe's future reusable rocket is still modeled after the Falcon 9, putting it a generation behind SpaceX’s state of the art Starship system. In essence, Europe consistently aimed for where the puck was rather than where it was going. Or, as a French politician recently put it, Europe lacked the “audacity” to commit to a reusable rocket at the right time and is now suffering the consequences. SpaceX’s rate of innovation was, and remains, too fast for the continent's slow, cautious, and bureaucratic space organizations to keep up with.

Seeing all of this, China altered its plans for the Long March 9, as well as the recently introduced Long March 8, to ensure that they do not meet the same fate as the Ariane 6.

Starship is also going to kill off another large rocket similar to the Long March 9: NASA's Space Launch System. SLS is a large expendable rocket developed by NASA during the 2010s using old and expensive technologies. The Long March 9 program was actually conceived with SLS in mind: China’s largest rocket was originally designed to replicate or slightly exceed SLS’s capabilities by 2030. However, China no longer believes SLS is the proper benchmark for its most ambitious rocket. Starship, even while still under development, has already set the new standard.

Starship is more capable and orders of magnitude less expensive than SLS. As a result, the future of the Space Launch System is not bright. The rocket is scheduled to launch for the first time in 2022 but many American think tanks and newspapers are already saying that it should be abandoned due to its astronomical and unsustainable $2 billion launch cost. These costs were once somewhat justifiable when no other rocket could carry as much payload to orbit. In 2022, however, Starship is real, and making rapid progress, and capable of doing far more than SLS for far, far less money.

SpaceX aims to launch Starship for $2 million, or 1,000 times less than SLS. Starship is also designed to not only be reusable but to be rapidly reusable, with turnaround times more like aircraft than to conventional rockets. Rapid reusability may eventually let SpaceX launch Starship multiple times a day, while SLS will always struggle to launch even twice a year. Even more impressively, Starship is designed to achieve an order of magnitude improvement in both payload and cost compared to the Falcon 9. This means Starship will launch ten times as much mass to orbit for one-tenth the cost of the best rocket in the world today. So it may take a while, but competition will eventually do what politicians on their own cannot and put the final nail in the coffin of the SLS program.

China’s new Long March 9 design is responding even more to the failures of SLS than to the limitations of the Ariane 6.

The Falcon 9 already lowered satellite launch costs by 30–40% and ended a long industry trend towards higher costs. These lower costs rippled throughout the sector, impacting almost everything except for the SLS program, which continued to amble along blissfully unaware. However, as these lower costs became the new industry standard, they set new expectations and made the egregious costs of SLS harder and harder to defend. Now all Starship has to do is work and it will permanently cut the legs out from under the SLS program.

China’s new Long March 9 design is responding even more to the failures of SLS than to the limitations of the Ariane 6. The Chinese government is reconfiguring its rocket to avoid the intense embarrassment NASA currently faces: of having spent billions of dollars developing a large new rocket that is already obsolete before its first launch. Unlike the old design, or SLS, the new Long March 9 design is meant to be future compatible. By forgoing solid rocket boosters, it makes Falcon 9-style first stage reusability easier. Its larger size and larger first stage also set the stage for possible Starship-style second stage reuse farther down the line. At the very least, it does not foreclose these options like the Ariane 6, SLS, and prior Long March 9 designs do.

To be clear, China’s new Long March 9 design is not trying to compete with Starship. That is hoping for too much. Instead, it merely opens up the possibility of incorporating similar technologies into the rocket over time. Fortunately for China, the Long March 9 was still early enough in its development program for the government to make major changes. Both the Ariane 6 and SLS were too far along to be saved.

The new Long March 9 design is only the most dramatic of many recent changes in the Chinese space sector. In 2017 China laid out an ambitious “Space Transportation Roadmap”. In 2020, it accelerated this timeline by announcing that it planned to make the Long March 8 reusable by 2025. At the same time, it also announced that China would be well into the era of smart, reusable rockets by 2035. To help accomplish these goals, the 14th Five-Year Plan released in 2021 singled out space as one of seven key frontier areas of technology. This makes space technologies one of the most important areas for Chinese industrial policy over the next five years, and likely over the next decade as well.

SpaceX’s success redefined the modern space industry. Now every nation and space organization is scrambling to match its achievements, with most having a rough time. Europe does not have the capacity or the ambition to match the newly empowered American commercial space industry. It is unlikely to even develop a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle like Starship, SLS, or the Long March 9. Meanwhile, Russia’s space industry has been so gutted over the last few decades that it cannot develop new rockets. It struggles just to maintain its current systems and by 2030 will likely no longer be able to do so. Finally, the various space projects in India, Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere all lack the capital, talent, and strategic purpose to truly reach for the stars.

The only country that can compete with SpaceX and the United States is China, which also has both the need and the desire. First, because advanced space systems are essential to its aspirations of regional dominance and global preeminence. Second, because China passionately believes that space is a grand arena worthy of the Chinese nation. Space has the sense of being a major technological frontier, perhaps the final one—and to the victor goes the spoils of the solar system. As a result, China is ramping up its response to the ongoing transformation of the space industry, and trying to avoid Europe’s mistakes, evade NASA’s sunk costs, and imitate SpaceX’s successes.

China’s challenge will be to match the blistering pace set by new American companies like SpaceX. This will be tough to do. The United States has long spent more on space than the rest of the world combined and it is now also innovating at an astonishing rate. Commercial investment is at an all-time high and space has become the fastest growing sector for defense investment and acquisition. Nonetheless, while it is unclear if China can keep up, the Chinese government is clearly determined to try.

The Chinese space program comes into its own

China developed its first rockets during the early days of the Cold War. Back then, space technology piggybacked on top of nuclear technology and China’s early rockets were all derived from ballistic missiles used to launch nuclear warheads. The whole Chinese space program was run by the Chinese military. The country’s first tentative steps into the space age were also aided by its military and industrial benefactor, the Soviet Union. China’s first rockets were not indigenous designs but copies of Soviet rockets, which were themselves copies of German rockets from World War II.

With military urgency, ample funding, and Soviet technologies in hand China rapidly made up for lost time.

After China split with the Soviet Union in 1960 it lost access to then-current Soviet technologies, causing it to fall far behind the two superpowers in space technology. During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, China had many grand ambitions, with plans for everything from space stations to manned spacecraft, but it lacked the money, technology, and political stability to implement its plans. Before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms gained steam, China simply lacked the core industrial systems and skills needed to keep up with technological progress in the United States and the Soviet Union. Without large projects to work on, it also never developed as large and capable a workforce as the two superpowers. More than 400,000 people worked on the Apollo program at its height in the late 1960s. At that time China couldn’t muster one-tenth as many highly skilled aerospace professionals.

China’s space sector started to turn the corner in the late 1980s. As commercial reforms revitalized and stabilized the economy, the government greenlit new rockets, set up new space ministries, and announced new space programs. In the early 1990s, Operation Desert Storm then added a dose of urgency to this effort. America’s decisive victory in Iraq stunned the Chinese military establishment and altered its understanding of modern warfare. It proved that space was no longer merely for detecting and delivering nuclear warheads, but now stood at the heart of modern military operations. War had evolved into a joint and networked activity and space was the new celestial command center.

China soon embarked on major reforms of its defense industry. During the 1990s, its primary state aerospace company was broken up to form the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). CASC is an industrial conglomerate that designs and builds major space systems and hardware. It is the main contractor for China’s space program and was originally modeled after Soviet design bureaus. CASIC is an industrial conglomerate that develops and manufactures missiles for China’s military. It is heavily involved in the space sector due to the historical and practical connection between nuclear missiles and space launch vehicles. Together these two large state-owned organizations implement China's space program.

Around the same time, China also created the China National Space Administration (CNSA). CNSA sounds like the Chinese equivalent of NASA, but the two organizations are very different. In the United States there are two space programs: an open, transparent, and civilian program run by NASA and a largely closed and opaque program run by the military. In China, however, this split does not exist. There is no real civilian space program. It is all still run by the Chinese military. As a result, CNSA is more of a figurehead agency used in the government’s domestic and international propaganda campaigns rather than a major organization designing space policies and programs.

By far the most important development of the 1990s was China’s renewed access to Soviet space technologies. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s new government was desperate for revenue and began auctioning off its most valuable technologies to the highest bidder. China took this as an open invitation to absorb as many advanced Russian designs and technologies as possible, and happily picked through the ashes of the Soviet Union to make up for the systems and skills it lost during the Sino-Soviet split. Throughout the decade it bought up cheap Russian gear and expertise at bargain prices. By the 2000s it was systematically integrating these Russian technologies into its systems, improving its industrial skills, and building up a large and talented space workforce.

With military urgency, ample funding, and Soviet technologies in hand China rapidly made up for lost time. By the 2010s, China’s space program was almost unrecognizable from its rather ramshackle origins in the 1990s. During the 1990s China’s marquee space program was its Shenzhou crewed spacecraft, a copy of the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, which first flew a Chinese astronaut to space in 2003. However, at the time China had no destinations for these astronauts to visit because it had been excluded from the International Space Station program. After 1998 it had also been cut off from American satellite technologies and from most official channels for international space cooperation. This isolation grew even worse after 2011 and forced China to develop everything it needed on its own.

During the 2000s and 2010s it methodically developed the whole suite of space technologies from anti-satellite weaponry to military communication satellites to lunar orbiters to modular space stations. By the mid-2010s China had learned all it could from Russia and was exceeding it in every major area of spaceflight. It began to hit several major milestones, including many the Soviet Union and Russia had never accomplished. For example, in 2016 it launched the world’s first quantum communication satellite and in 2018 it performed more orbital launches than any other country. By the beginning of this decade China was firing on all cylinders: it was launching numerous satellites every year, completing its own satellite navigation network, landing rovers on the Moon and Mars, building and crewing its own space station, launching experimental spaceplanes, and even developing advanced space-based weaponry.

Without a doubt China now possesses the second most advanced space industry after the United States. With Russian industry in free fall, no other country even comes close. In fact, China's space capabilities are more comparable to American space capabilities than any other country’s have been since the height of the Cold War. Naturally, and right on cue, American politicians, policymakers, and publications began to worry. Yet these anxieties miss how radically the space industry was transformed during the 2010s, and how these changes reinforced and expanded the American space industry, while also threatening the industrial system China had built to secure its future in space.

Out of Left Field: NASA's Commercialization of Space

At the start of the new millennium, space was a government arena and national space programs were state-driven operations. This was part of the legacy of the Cold War, which had turned space into a grand battlefield of military, ideological, and technical competition. NASA itself was also a product of this period and a quintessential Cold War institution. Created after the launch of Sputnik provoked national hysteria in the United States, NASA’s original purpose was to win the new celestial competition and secure American preeminence in space science and technology.

While both of these programs were very controversial when they were first announced, the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs would turn out to be revolutionary successes.

Only a decade later, NASA’s Apollo program accomplished this goal. However, while the Moon landings confirmed America’s supremacy in space, they also left NASA in an awkward position. With the Soviet Union comfortably upstaged, American politicians could no longer agree on what exactly the space agency should be doing and at what cost. During the 1960s NASA had briefly embodied the idealistic dreams of a martyred young President, making its budget sacrosanct. But after 1970, when President Nixon ended the Apollo program and cut the space agency's budget, NASA became just another domestic program among many. Without a real competitor to best, NASA suddenly had to articulate a compelling new reason for why it existed and why it deserved scarce budget dollars.

Ever since then NASA’s basic argument has been that the agency is needed to maintain America’s edge in space but unfortunately maintenance projects are never funded as well as capital projects.

During the heady 1960s the Apollo program was seen as the start of an even more expansive and expensive space program. It ended up the clear peak preceding a long and steady decline. Later American presidents would occasionally evoke President Kennedy and create grand plans for space exploration but the next administration always changed course or watered these grandiose plans down. After the end of the Cold War, space was briefly turned into a forum for global cooperation, symbolized by the transformation of President Reagan’s Space Station Freedom into President Clinton’s International Space Station, but this aspirational vision also did not last.

Cooperation proved far less motivating than competition. And once the novelty of the space station wore off, NASA was left in the same position it had been in before. The agency was always on the defensive and continuously struggled to justify itself to a population more interested in cheap consumer goods than in mapping the universe. The space agency tried many optimistic and utilitarian marketing campaigns, the most successful one perhaps being the useful role it could play in fighting climate change, but it never found a purpose it could sell better than besting a strategic competitor. This is why the two most recent NASA administrators have returned to form and hammered home the direct threat China’s ambitions in space pose to the United States.

But back in the 2000s the Soviet Union was gone, China was not yet a credible threat, and NASA found its budget hard to justify. Project costs were ballooning as the space industry matured and NASA’s private sector partners scaled back their investments. The space agency’s ever-shifting plans made things worse as a lack of policy continuity led to a lack of program follow through which led to even higher costs and ever more lawmaker involvement and oversight. Space was cool but cool was costly. During this period NASA seemed increasingly expensive, irrelevant, and adrift.

So the agency decided to address its growing challenges by experimenting with new ways of doing business. In 2006, NASA issued contracts for companies to begin developing new cargo spacecraft. In 2008, it issued contracts to resupply the ISS on privately owned and operated spacecraft, setting up the world’s first commercial spaceflight program. When it retired the Space Shuttle in 2011 NASA continued down this path, funding new commercial spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle and to carry astronauts to the space station.

While both of these programs were very controversial when they were first announced, the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs would turn out to be revolutionary successes, ones that permanently changed how space systems were conceived, designed, bought, and operated in the United States. Nonetheless, policymakers didn’t entirely abandon their earlier model. The traditional program they created alongside these new commercial programs was SLS.

Private companies, primarily defense contractors, had always built NASA’s systems. However, NASA’s new commercial programs used radically different contracting structures and oversight mechanisms. These changes helped to recreate competition and redistribute risk, transforming the previously cozy relationship between the government and the private sector. NASA was no longer designing, supervising, owning, and operating everything itself. Instead, it was purchasing services from private companies. These private companies got more long-term upside but also took on more risk, received less of a guaranteed profit, and were financially on the hook if anything went wrong. For its part, NASA accepted less control over the process in exchange for more flexibility, and most importantly, the tantalizing possibility of much lower costs.

Due to the many risks associated with this move NASA was lucky to have chosen one company for both programs: SpaceX.

National space programs, however, are not nimble or adaptive. Hulking bureaucracies don't shift their long-term plans easily.

SpaceX’s meteoric rise did more than just open up bureaucratic contracting procedures. This new vertically integrated rocket manufacturer introduced new technologies, design methodologies, and management techniques into the staid world of spaceflight. It added hustle and vision. SpaceX introduced the Falcon 9 rocket in 2010 and it flew its first cargo to the ISS in 2012. By 2013, SpaceX's modern Falcon 9 rocket was cheaper and more advanced than its competitors in Europe, Russia, and China. NASA estimates that it was also more than 13 times cheaper to develop than a comparable rocket would have been under a traditional NASA program. What would have cost billions for NASA to do with another company, cost it less than $500 million with SpaceX.

Then, in 2015, SpaceX launched and landed an orbital rocket for the first time, ushering in a new era of reusable spacecraft. In 2018, it brought this technology to the world of heavy-lift rockets by flying the inaugural Falcon Heavy with two side boosters. The remarkable innovation of reusable rockets completely transformed the technology stack and cost structure of the launch industry. Every rocket in service or development around the world suddenly had to be reevaluated. Even today the impact of reusable rockets continues to ripple through the space industry, forcing companies and national space programs to adapt.

National space programs, however, are not nimble or adaptive. Hulking bureaucracies don't shift their long-term plans easily. Same goes for the comfortable and complacent contractors they’ve partnered with for decades. Neither is structured to process significant market shifts or to respond to them quickly or effectively. The historically long lead times for developing space technologies slow things down even further. Traditionally, the costs in the space sector were high, the technologies were complex, and the commercial opportunities were low. Over time these factors fused with a reliance on state funding and state procurement cycles to create a lumbering, sclerotic industry.

As a result, SpaceX was able to quickly corner two-thirds of the launch market. In 2021 it landed its 100th rocket, launched approximately 80% of all mass sent into orbit, and flew 94% of its missions on used rockets—all while its competitors had still not yet landed their first orbital rocket. At this point, only state support for SpaceX's competitors keeps them in business. Without this support all of them would have gone bankrupt. These other space launch companies are kept alive because space remains a strategic realm filled with advanced technologies, key military systems, and a sense of national competition and prestige. Similarly, while national space programs still guide and fund the industry, they are no longer in the vanguard of space technologies as they were during the Cold War. Most space agencies, like traditional rocket manufacturers, are hastily trying to reinvent themselves while keeping their old systems and business models intact.

True energy and innovation in the space industry now resides in the many new private space companies that developed around the world during the 2010s. The oldest, most advanced, and most well capitalized of these companies are all in the United States. Several advanced new American rockets are now in development with many expected to launch in the next few years. Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is already flying and rockets from companies like Astra, Firefly, and Relativity are likely to fly in the near future. Whether the market can support all of these companies is a real and important question, but their mere existence illustrates how a large and technically capable launch industry has developed in the wake of SpaceX's success.

New European space companies are far less developed than American companies and appear to lack the cost, capital, and labor structure needed to compete. Traditional European aerospace companies continue to absorb most of the talent and funds on the continent, while new entrants remain relatively small and poorly capitalized. European companies also lack anything equivalent to NASA’s experienced financial and technical support, testing infrastructure, and launch sites, not to mention the heavy funding provided by the American military. Endless squabbling between European countries over who gets what work in the space sector further balkanizes its prospects. Due to these challenges, European politicians are increasingly worried about the health and viability of the European space sector in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, Russia’s once-proud space industry is rusting away. It is just as starved for cash as it was in the 1990s. It also uses the same space systems it used back then, only now with increasingly dangerous results. Just in the last few years a Russian crew capsule flew to space with a hole in it, a rocket launch failed, forcing astronauts onboard to eject, and a new module for the ISS began firing its thrusters uncontrollably, endangering the whole station. Russia has lost its place in the commercial launch market, lost its contracts to send NASA astronauts to the ISS, and lost its chance to develop modern satellite manufacturing and design capabilities. Western sanctions imposed after the invasion of Crimea in 2014 have further compromised Russia’s domestic technologies, industrial equipment, financing, and human capital. The full invasion of Ukraine in 2022 killed what was left. Russia’s heyday is long past and no new private companies have emerged, or will emerge, to save it.

China already has a strong space industry, and it is now actively responding to the new world of commercial, reusable spaceflight.

NASA's commercial programs and their corporate standard bearer, SpaceX, have stimulated unprecedented interest and investment in the space industry. However, while interesting companies have popped up outside the United States, neither Russia nor Europe can mount an adequate response. Other major space nations such as Japan, South Korea, and India also lack the infrastructure systems and investment levels needed to match the rate of innovation seen in the United States. Reusable rockets raise the barriers to entry in the launch market because they make it harder for new rockets to compete on either price or availability, which makes indigenous rockets far less likely to pencil out. Since rocket development remains time-consuming and expensive, most countries will not bother to develop their own unless they believe an independent space launch capability is a strategic necessity.

Paradoxically, a world of remarkable innovation and clear American preeminence should be bad for NASA’s budget. It should lead to another round of scaled-back space budgets. But fortunately for NASA, a new competitor has arrived right when it was needed most. China already has a strong space industry, and it is now actively responding to the new world of commercial, reusable spaceflight. It is investing a massive amount of money, time, and energy into modernizing its space sector—more, in fact, than Europe and Russia combined.


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