2011-10-04 (China Military News cited from http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2011/09/Five-Myths-About-Chinas-Space-Program”>heritage.org and by Dean Cheng) — As the Chinese orbit their Tiangong-1 space lab, the spotlight is once again turned on China’s space program. To help inform the discussions, it would be helpful to address a few of the myths surrounding China’s space efforts.
Myth #1: China is in a space race with the United States.
Perhaps the most common myth is that China is interested in directly challenging the U.S. in space. In fact, leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been interested in developing a space capability almost since its founding in 1949. After China orbited its first satellite in 1970, the main focus of Chinese space development has been on building systems that would facilitate national economic development (communications satellites, earth resource satellites, navigation satellites), although national security concerns have become more prominent in the past several years.
The Chinese have followed a steady, methodical path in their space development effort. The pace of Chinese space launches is hardly setting a blistering pace, especially in the area of human spaceflight. Since 2003, when Chinese colonel Yang Liwei became the first Chinese astronaut to orbit the earth, the Chinese have launched only two other manned missions at intervals of two to three years.
Myth #2: China is catching up with the U.S. in space.
China is currently the only nation whose space program is on track to place people into orbit. The U.S. has decommissioned its Space Shuttle fleet, while the failure of the Russian launch of the unmanned Progress 44 supply mission raises the real question of whether Russia is up to the task of safely shuttling astronauts to and from the International Space Station. China’s space industry workforce is younger than the American one and substantially younger and healthier than the Russian one. Chinese leaders appear committed to sustaining their space efforts for the coming decades.
Yet the U.S. still enjoys substantial leads over China in a variety of ways, whether it is the range of satellites it fields, the capability of certain types of payloads, and, above all, experience in space operations. American astronauts have clocked thousands of hours in space, substantially more than the Chinese have.
Myth #3: China seeks cooperation with the U.S. in space.
The Chinese are not racing with the U.S., but neither are they desperately seeking cooperation. China is pursuing space capabilities for its own ends and does not need American technology or permission. As important, China is not about to allow others to determine the course of its space development. Those who would hope that, by cooperating with Beijing, Washington could somehow have some control or even influence over Chinese development badly misunderstand the Chinese view of themselves and their relations with the outside world.
This is not to suggest that China would refuse to cooperate if asked. However, the Chinese will cooperate only when they see the opportunity for some kind of gain—how would it serve Chinese interests? Once upon a time, it might have been for the prestige of being recognized as a peer with the leading space power. But with the end of the Space Shuttle program, it is not clear that China needs the U.S. for prestige purposes.
China would gladly cooperate with the U.S. in other aspects of space development—e.g., developing improved sensors, power systems, and the like—but that raises the question of whether it would be in the American interest to share advanced technology with the PRC.
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