It was 8:43 p.m. Beijing Time on Nov. 3, 2016 on a clear day at the Wenchang launch center in China. The China National Space Administration was launching the maiden voyage of its Long March 5 rocket.
This rocket, if successful, would put China’s launch capabilities on par with NASA and its subcontractor ULA’s Delta IV Heavy space launch system.
In the 1960’s China was a very poor country and progress in its space program was slow. They’d been benefitting from Soviet castoffs for years, but when Mao accused the Soviets of veering away from communism he made the choice for China to go it alone.
In 1966 China launched its first guided missile, followed 4 years later by its first satellite. In 1995 its Long March 2E rocket exploded shortly after launch killing 6 and injuring 23 more. Only a year later Long March 3B blew up shortly after launch, crashing in a nearbby village resulting in over two hundred dead.
Setbacks aside China kept pushing forward. In 2003 China became only the third country to use its own launch vehicle to put people in space. Named ‘Taikonauts’ those sent skyward became instant national heroes. By 2013 launches became standard and over 10 taikonauts had been beyond the Kármán line marking spaces boundary.
To the West it seems as though China’s just retreading footsteps the US left a long time ago. Something interesting to note is China’s space budget is only $US 1.3 billion compared to NASA’s $US 18.3 billion. Those numbers are not close. China is making huge strides with a fraction of the funding.
They’re so efficient because they’re following the Apollo model of focusing ruthlessly on one goal and ignoring everything else. During the Apollo era the US didn’t make many significant astrophysics or SETI finds. The funding didn’t call for it. They had been tasked by JFK to reach the moon by 1969. Or from the man himself to embark on;
And they did it.
In reaching the Moon, NASA forever changed mankinds place in the universe. WeIn 2013 China landed the Yutu rover on the moon. Internationally there wasn’t much fanfare, as it had been done before. But not for a long time. In fact it had been 40 years since any space agency had landed a craft on the moon.
China hasn’t been very forthcoming but it’s thought they’ve discovered new types of moon rock. They also sent back some astounding HD photos of the lunar surface, something the US had never done.
China has grand plans for their space program. By 2020 their first fully functioning space station will be up and running. Without an extension thats the same year the ISS will be officially decommissioned. In that same year China intends to put a lander and rover onto the Martian surface. This is all buildup to their plan to have a lunar base built and manned by the 2030’s.
China’s only a step behind the US in space. Their capabilities are fast increasing and what’s more their GDP is rising. According to Forbes their economy will eclipse the US by 2018.
Wu Weiren, is the chief designer of China’s moon and Mars missions. He recently told the BBC that China wants to partner with the US on space missions.
But as Neil DeGrasse Tyson so eloquently put it on Twitter;
With China’s astounding momentum and the US’s broader but slower progress in past few decades it seems like their is a few strands unraveling here.
In one the US ends its ban on working with Chinese nationals on space programs. This leads to the US, JAXA, Roscosmos, the ESA and the CNSA developing working relationships and progressing space travel internationally somewhat peacefully.
In another espionage plays a dominant role and the US continues isolating the CNSA from the international space party leading China to go it alone, and continue to keep its discoveries private. Given China’s momentum this would lead to what has been termed the “Modern Space Race”.
In the 1800’s Britain was the dominant world power. It seemed that may never change. But it did. Changing political tides left the US post WWII as the leading world hegemony. This hasn’t changed in the ensuing 70 years. The Cold War threatened the peace, but the undeniable reality of MAD and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union left the US leading.
The space race and the rush to gather the staggering resources available out there markanother shuffling of the deck. Where the cards can come out in another superpowers favor. If one space program were to master offworld get access to the $US 1 trillion of commodities found in a medium sized asteroid. Or worse, weaponize space such that they changed the MAD standoff and gained tactical superiority. They could dismantle other world players and take the lead.
Space is the next frontier. It may seem distant, but the politcal jockeying going on as we speak will determine our species fate. Private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin are helping, but they can’t do it all. We need to put our support into these programs, and understand the role they play in our lives. Or else risk being left behind.
Written by Andrew Walls
For more of Andrew’s writing visit his space and entrepreneurship blog Landing Attempts.