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Luo Ge
Luo Ge, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, described his nation’s space program and plans during a speech in Washington April 3. (credit: J. Foust)

China, competition, and cooperation

On March 30th, the “Science, the Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce, and Related Agencies” subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee held a hearing simply titled “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”, with NASA administrator Michael Griffin as the sole witness. By all appearances this looked to be a routine hearing where members of the subcommittee discussed issues regarding the fiscal year 2007 budget proposal with the administrator, a common early step in the overall appropriations process. As a result, the hearing—which, unlike many other congressional hearings today, was not webcast—got little attention in the press or the space community in general.

“If China beats us there, we will have lost the space program,” said Rep. Frank Wolf. “They are basically, fundamentally in competition with us.”

Those that did attend, though, got a surprise. Rather than quiz Griffin about budgetary issues, the subcommittee spent much of its time discussing a very different topic: China’s space program, and the threat it poses to NASA and the nation in general. In the eyes of at least some members of the subcommittee, the US and China are engaged in a new space race, one that America is in danger of losing. However, on closer examination, it appears that many of these concerns are based on misinterpreted or simply inaccurate information about China’s space program. Moreover, using the threat of Chinese space capabilities to increase NASA’s budget could have deleterious effects for the space agency in the longer term.

“A space race going on right now”

Because no one anticipated its off-topic content, the hearing got very little coverage in the media: an article in the March 31st edition of the newspaper Florida Today, and a full-page article in the April 3rd issue of the industry weekly Space News. Those accounts, though, indicated that the subcommittee spent much of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing tackling not the details of the NASA budget but instead the perceived threat posed by China’s space program.

“We have a space race going on right now and the American people are totally unaware of all this,” claimed Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), who joined the subcommittee earlier this year after stepping down as House Majority Leader, Florida Today reported.

The belief—that the US and China are engaged in a space race, presumably to send people to the Moon, or back to the Moon in America’s case—was shared by several other committee members at the hearing. “If China beats us there, we will have lost the space program,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the subcommittee chairman, said, according to Space News. “They are basically, fundamentally in competition with us.”

Much of those statements seemed to be rooted in unsourced claims that China planned to send astronauts to the Moon by 2017, one year earlier than NASA’s current plans. Even Griffin seemed to acknowledge that claim, according to Space News. “They have announced that they intend to be on the Moon by 2017. People can choose to believe it or not,” he said. “The basic design of the Chinese Shenzhou, following as it does the Russian Soyuz, is capable of returning people safely from the Moon.”

Before the hearing ended, Griffin agreed to perform a 30-day unclassified study for the subcommittee on the capabilities of China’s space program. Wolf said he planned to hold a followup hearing to discuss the contents of the report and the overall state of China’s space capabilities.

The Chinese perspective

One of the problems with developing any report on China’s space program is the lack of detailed information about their efforts, particularly in English-language accounts. For example, the English version of the web site of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), the national space agency, does not appear to have been updated in nearly six months (although the Chinese version does appear to be updated more frequently). Many of the reports about the Chinese space program from Chinese media, both state-run and (nominally) independent, are often contradictory, confusing, exaggerated, or just plain incorrect. (See “Mysterious dragon: myth and reality of the Chinese space program”, The Space Review, November 7, 2005.)

“Our focus is on national, social, economic development,” Luo said. “That is our basic principle.”

Fortunately for NASA, a primary source on China’s space program turned up in Washington last week, just a short taxi ride from NASA Headquarters. Luo Ge, vice administrator of CNSA, spoke at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event titled “Global Space Agenda: China” at a downtown Washington hotel on April 3. In his speech, he laid out a Chinese space program that has significant and growing capabilities, but one that not only poses no threat to the US, seems quite interested in cooperating with, not competing against, NASA.

Luo emphasized that the bulk of China’s space program was oriented towards practical applications. “Our focus is on national, social, economic development,” he said through an interpreter. “That is our basic principle.” That has generally involved the development of satellites in five areas—telecommunications, meteorology, remote sensing, science, and recoverable spacecraft—as well as the launch vehicles needed to put them in orbit.

Much of Luo’s talk focused on China’s future plans, which are primarily designed to continue efforts in those areas, as well as navigation and oceanography, two more recent areas of interest for the Chinese. However, what Luo described for the next five to ten years represented evolutionary, not revolutionary, developments that are no more advanced than what the US, Russia, or Europe are capable of today.

A case in point is the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle. The New Generation Launch Vehicle (which is sometimes referred to in the West as the Long March 5, although Luo said that no official name has been assigned to the vehicle yet) will feature a five-meter payload fairing and a modular design that will allow it to place as much as 25 tons into low Earth orbit and 14 tons into geosynchronous transfer orbit. That would make it comparable to the largest expendable vehicles in service today, like the Delta 4 Heavy and the Ariane 5. However, it is far smaller than the shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher NASA is developing for future lunar exploration: that rocket will be able to place over 100 tons into LEO.

Likewise, the stated ambitions of its satellites would make them comparable, at best, to what other countries, and even companies, offer today. A series of remote sensing satellites, including three developed in cooperation with Brazil and a high-resolution stereo imaging satellite, would offer images with resolutions no better than about two meters per pixel. By comparison, US-based companies DigitalGlobe and GeoEye today sell imagery with resolutions as sharp as 60 centimeters a pixel, and both plan to launch satellites in the coming year capable of even higher-resolution images. Later this year China plans to launch SinoSat-2, its first “large” GEO communications satellite, with a mass at launch of 5,200 kilograms and the ability to generate up to 10 kilowatts of power. This is similar to what most of the major commercial communications satellite manufacturers have been building for nearly a decade. (Ironically, the commercial market has shown increased interest in recent years in smaller satellites.) And while China is interested in satellite navigation technologies, its focus is on regional systems, using satellites in GEO, rather than global systems that can compete with GPS; moreover, Luo noted China’s role in Europe’s Galileo system is focused on applications of that system, and not in any way on development of the space segment of Galileo itself.

For all the attention focused on China’s manned space program and perceived lunar ambitions, Luo said very little about either during his presentation. He devoted only one slide each to both the future of the Shenzhou program and its unmanned lunar exploration program at the end of a forty-slide presentation. Luo said that the long-term goal of the manned space program was to develop an orbiting “space lab” by 2015. In the meantime, China is focusing on developing EVA technology, with plans (not stated by Luo in his presentation but widely reported elsewhere) to conduct a spacewalk on its next manned mission, Shenzhou 7, now planned for 2008. Luo acknowledged, though, that they have a long way to go in that field. “This technology is very mature in the US,” said Luo, who earlier in the day visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and got a glimpse of preparations for the planned final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. “But to us it’s something new.”

For all the attention focused on China’s manned space program and perceived lunar ambitions, Luo said very little about either during his presentation.

And what about that lunar exploration program? Luo outlined China’s Chang’e lunar exploration program, which calls for an orbiter to be launched in 2007, a lander (perhaps featuring a rover, based on the illustration shown in the talk) in 2012, and a sample return mission in 2017. That timeline was something of a revelation for some in attendance at the CSIS presentation, although it was simply a reiteration of previous plans. And if to eliminate any uncertainty about that 2017 sample return mission, Luo added, “These are all unmanned missions.”

Competition, cooperation, prestige, and politics

After Luo’s talk, it was clear that China’s space program does not pose the threat to American space supremacy voiced several days earlier by some congressmen. Not only does China not have any stated plans to land humans on the Moon in 2017 (or at any time in the foreseeable future), China’s plans for the next five to ten years appear focused on trying to bring its space capabilities up to the level that the existing major space powers, including the US, have today. That does not mean that the US should become complacent regarding the Chinese, but it also means that there is no reason to fear them as well.

Some might argue that there’s no reason to take Luo at his word, and that China may yet be developing in secret advanced space capabilities, including manned lunar exploration. True, it is wise to be skeptical about pronouncements of government officials, regardless of country. However, such capabilities, which may require the development of even-larger launch vehicles and a new spaceport, cannot be developed in secret forever. (See “Red Moon. Dark Moon.”, The Space Review, October 11, 2005.) Moreover, working on such projects in secret could negate what is one of the major purposes of the Chinese space program: international prestige.

Some insight into that came during the question and answer session after Luo’s CSIS talk, when someone asked why China was pursuing both manned spaceflight and lunar exploration programs when he previously said the focus of Chinese space efforts was on practical applications. Luo argued that both programs fall into the space science and technology development aspects of China’s overall program. Moreover, in arguments not entirely unfamiliar to space advocates in the US, he said that the manned program also permitted research in biological and agricultural projects.

However, one can argue that the biggest benefits of both the Shenzhou and Chang’e programs are prestige: China is only the third country to launch humans into orbit, and sending a series of probes to the Moon would put it into a similarly elite group of nations. By putting itself generally in the same tier of space powers as the US, it not only helps establish its credentials as a world power, it also elevates itself above the other major countries in East and South Asia, including spacefaring nations like Japan and India.

Of course, one way for China to use space to make its mark as a world power is to race the US back to the Moon, as some in the US think China is doing. However, that would require a significant amount of money, which the Chinese program appears to be lacking. Asked about the size of the Chinese space budget, Luo said that Chinese budgets were “very complicated” but estimated annual expenditures at about $500 million. That’s not only a small fraction of NASA’s $16.5-billion budget, it’s also smaller than what Russia—which, like China, benefits from low-cost labor—spends on its space program today. It may explain why some of the high-profile, but expensive, aspects of China’s space program, like Shenzhou, have proceeded at a relatively slow pace.

Chinese get “very humble” when the two programs are compared, according to Congressman Tom Feeney. “I think [that’s] partly because they do not want to be a threat and partly because they do not want to overly excite expectations that they cannot live up to.”

Given that modest budget, it’s no wonder that Luo emphasized cooperation, not competition, with the US in his talk. He noted that China is actively working with a number of other countries on various space ventures, and gently chided the US for not being nearly as open to cooperation with China as it was back in the 1980s. “I think one country, if it is open, it will have progress and prosperity, and if it is closed, then it is going to be left behind,” he said.

He even suggested that China might be willing to participate in some way with the International Space Station. “ISS cooperation, we have always been interested,” he said. “We don’t have the ticket yet.” In any case, any US-China cooperation in space would provide a big boost in regional and international prestige for China, since it would be perceived as being an equal, in some respects, of the US in space—and it would cost far less than a space race.

Others have previously pointed out that China does not appear competitive when it compares its space program with the American effort. Rep. Tom Feeney, who visited China earlier this year as part of the first Congressional delegation to go to the Chinese manned launch center in Jiuquan, told a Space Transportation Association breakfast in February that Chinese get “very humble” when the two programs are compared. “I think [that’s] partly because they do not want to be a threat and partly because they do not want to overly excite expectations that they cannot live up to,” he said.

Such cooperation raises a number of foreign policy issues for both countries, but at least some in the US believe it’s time to engage China on space, rather than try to contain it. “Somehow, our strategy of containment, if its goal is to prevent you [China] from becoming a spacefaring nation, isn’t working,” said John Hamre, president of CSIS and a former deputy secretary of defense during the Clinton Administration, in introductory remarks at the April 3 event.

Despite Luo’s statements, it’s likely some in Congress will continue to see China’s space program as a competitive threat to the US. According to the published accounts of the March 30 hearing, some used the perceived space race with China as proof that NASA needed more funding. According to Space News, Tom DeLay said that he would fight to get up to $5 billion added to NASA’s budgets in the coming years to accelerate development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, citing China’s program as the reason. “We had a 40-year lead in space and we’re giving it up. The US is quibbling over $3 billion to $5 billion. It’s amazing to me,” he said.

It is certainly tempting for space advocates to build up the threat of a space race with China—even if such a competition is highly unlikely—to help loosen Congressional purse strings and allow NASA to free itself from its current budget crunch. However, that short-term gain must be tempered by long-term risks: if a space race does not materialize, future Congresses and Administrations may revisit NASA’s budget and take away the funding it previously added. Worse, if the Vision for Space Exploration becomes associated, in the eyes of Congress or the public, as NASA’s instrument in a space race with China, the Vision itself could become threatened down the road when that race does not take shape.

However, such long-term planning is not necessarily Congress’s forte, and some members of Congress have even shorter time horizons: on April 4, DeLay announced that he would be resigning from Congress by June, late enough to still be around when NASA delivers its report on China’s space program, but not nearly long enough to shepherd through the additional funding he claims is needed for NASA to counter the Chinese threat.

There are signs, though, that cooperation may yet take hold between NASA and CNSA. After his CSIS speech, Luo flew to Colorado Springs to speak at the National Space Symposium. After his speech, he revealed to that he plans to invite Michael Griffin to come to China this fall. That may be the first step towards cooperation between the two nations’ space programs, or, at the very least, defuse any notions of a space race that, in the long run, could do NASA more harm than good.