(Image: Chinese Academy of Sciences)
Just weeks ago China’s first moon rover, the Jade Rabbit, was led to lunar pasture. The three-month Chang’e-3 mission to gather data is now underway, with the Jade Rabbit having just completed its first soil examination. The module that released the rover made the first ‘soft’ moon landing since 1976, and whilst previous missions have been shrouded in secrecy, China boasted new confidence in its space program by broadcasting live footage of the landing.
The mission marks a decade of prodigious achievement for the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), and is helping China to garner the international recognition and respect it has long sought after.
Since 2003, CNSA activity has culminated in impressive development, with other major accomplishments including; the first Chinese man in space (and nine years later, the first woman), a series of lunar probes, the first spacewalk, the completion of the Tianggong-1 trial space station and the success of various Shenzhou spacecraft missions.
China has also continued the installation of satellites for its BeiDao satellite navigation system—set to rival the USA’s GPS and Russia’s GLONASS. This program will provide China with independent satellite navigation to be utilised as a military positioning and intelligence tool. Despite the concerns BeiDao has caused regarding the militarisation of space, permitting wider access to its
satellite imagery may serve as a valuable diplomatic chip for China within the Asian region, and could potentially be used to ease tensions with India.
As CNSA’s self-imposed 2020 deadline to have a fully operational space station in orbit is looming, China’s ambitious new space initiative is causing ripples, sparking concern that its agenda for 2014 and beyond will challenge the trajectories of established space players—the USA in particular.
Over the past decade, various attempts by China to join the International Space Station (ISS) have been thwarted by the USA. Despite improving economic relations between the two countries, the US Congress has openly banned NASA from engaging in any bilateral agreement with CNSA. Inherent concerns that NASA could forfeit its competitive edge to China via technology transfer are partly due to a lack of transparency regarding the nature and goals of China’s space program.
An entangled political entity, the ISS is run by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada, and usage is regulated through a complex network of intergovernmental treaties and agreements. Due to a scheduled cessation in funding in 2024, the ISS will begin dissolution during the next decade. This change comes as the USA outgrows yesterday’s folly of human spaceflight in favour of more ambitious goals, like sending astronauts to asteroids, and, potentially later to Mars. The USA’s current financial concerns have prompted the downgrade in priority of ISS funding, placing the future space involvement of other ISS members in jeopardy. Members will be looking elsewhere for an organisation with human spaceflight capabilities in order to continue utilising and expanding valuable current knowledge. China’s alternative station is aptly scheduled for completion during this period of upheaval, ready and eager to fill the void.
Although China has only recently achieved milestones that the USA and former Soviet Union accomplished over fifty years ago, former NASA astronaut Leroy Chau recently emphasised that complacency regarding the CNSA’s achievements is “short-sighted”. Although China lacks operational experience, it has benefitted as a late mover to the space game by avoiding the mistakes of its predecessors.
Whilst NASA’s progress is often hindered by congress and bureaucratic hurdles, the CNSA’s exponential evolution rate is aided by the fact that it operates as an autonomous extension of the Chinese government, and can proceed with its agenda rapidly and with support as a top state funding priority.
The Telegraph‘s Shanghai correspondent Tom Phillips recently suggested that the CNSA’s rapid progress will inspire the USA to “pick up the slack” and, through ensuing competitiveness, major boons to space science may be gained. Although concerns at this stage about a 21st century space race may be premature, competition between the USA and China may also create friction that the—at times—fragile relationship could do without.