The next man on the moon may well be Chinese

Since China’s manned space program was approved in 1992, it has moved at breathtaking speed

For Beijing, the heavens open

Qin Xian’an/Xinhua/Corbis

On Sept. 29, at a remote location in the Gobi Desert, China launched its Tiangong-1 space module into the night sky. With President Hu Jintao and other dignitaries looking on, China’s Long March rocket blasted off just after 9 p.m.; 10 minutes later, Tiangong-1 (the name translates as “Heavenly Palace”) broke away from the rocket, deploying solar panels for power, and continued into orbit.

In terms of technology, Tiangong-1 isn’t a major step forward. The Chinese spacelab, currently unmanned, has a small compartment where up to three astronauts can stay for short periods; it’s been compared to NASA’s Skylab, launched in 1973, or Russia’s first space station, launched in 1971. But China isn’t dallying: since its manned space program was approved in 1992, it has moved at breathtaking speed. China launched an astronaut into space in 2003, becoming one of just three nations with its own human space flight capabilities (the U.S. and Russia are the other two). Last year, for the first time, it launched more satellites than the U.S., and it’s the only country building a space station by itself. After 2020, China hopes to put a man on the moon. “They’re trying to place themselves in the category of superpower,” says Swansea University’s Michael Sheenan, who studies international space politics. “The Tiangong-1 launch is a step in that direction.”

What China’s space program lacks in technology and experience, it makes up for in financial resources and political will. “It’s very hard to do manned space flight in democracies,” says Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. The Chinese space program is closely linked to its government, which—without an electorate to worry about—has been able to push ahead with its ambitious goals.

China’s outsider status among spacefaring nations might have helped, too. The country has been blocked, largely by the U.S., from joining the International Space Station (ISS), whose members include Canada, Japan, Russia, the U.S. and the European Space Agency. (China has partnered with others, including Russia and the ESA, on other projects.) “In trying to isolate China, we’ve provided motivation to move forward on their own much more quickly,” Johnson-Freese says. With this policy, she adds, the U.S. may have “shot itself in the foot.”

China has publicly stated its space program is peaceful, but unlike NASA, which is a civilian agency, “its manned program is run by the military,” Johnson-Freese says. China faced heavy international criticism after shooting one of its orbiting satellites out of the sky in 2007, demonstrating powerful anti-satellite technology, although it insisted this was just a test. But as much as 95 per cent of space technology is dual use, Johnson-Freese says, meaning it can be used for military or civilian purposes. “If there’s a satellite in orbit, it’s hard to tell whether it’s taking imagery for crop rotation or targeting,” she says. “That worries people, understandably.”

Early in the morning on Nov. 3, as millions of Chinese watched live on state television, an unmanned spacecraft named Shenzhou-8 successfully docked with Tiangong-1, which is designed to practise the docking techniques necessary to run a larger space station. With this, China hit another milestone, becoming the third country after the U.S. and Russia to independently develop space docking technology. Later versions of the Shenzhou craft will be manned by an astronaut, who will dock with Tiangong-1 manually; China plans to put Tiangong-2 and Tiangong-3 into orbit in the next few years, too. Chinese media have reported that astronauts, including two women, are being trained. In the near future, China plans to land a lunar rover; and in the longer term, it’s considering the establishment of a manned lunar base.

NASA, meanwhile, is in the middle of a transition period. Since the retirement of its shuttles in July, the U.S. agency has no way to ferry astronauts to the ISS. It’s investing in privately run space taxis, but these won’t be ready for years; for now, it buys rides to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz rocket. China hopes to open its own space station around 2020, when the ISS is set to close for good. “Twenty years from now, we don’t want the Chinese ferrying people to their space station while the U.S. is still regrouping,” Johnson-Freese says. “Perception is important, because perception becomes reality.”

NASA doesn’t have any plans to return to the moon; its lofty goals include manned missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars. But to remain the dominant superpower in space, it can’t afford to stand still. If all goes according to plan, the next astronaut on the moon will be Chinese.

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The next man on the moon may well be Chinese

  1. Yes, the US has long since dropped the ball on this.

    Air conditioning for tents in Afghanistan gets more money than NASA.

    Once  again, Imperial Overstretch has killed an Empire.

  2. “China has publicly stated its space program is peaceful, but unlike NASA, which is a civilian agency, “its manned program is run by the military,” ”

    As if NASA is a private company not associated with the U.S. government and its military.
    Do we really think the U.S. space program does not have a military component?

    • Yes, but there is a difference (and I am no China-basher). As a civilian agency, NASA is required to be transparent about its strategy, missions, and goals. Any military-run program is obviously much less so. NASA’s exceptions where it does work directly with DoD are just that – exceptions. In your zeal to make a (legitimate) point, don’t stretch it past the breaking point.

      That said, I am one who believes the U.S. and China should cooperate in space. No system is monolithic (I’m referring to China) and working with them will help empower the “good guys” and help marginalize the bad guys. 

  3. The next man on the moon may very well be Chinese, but it’s not at all accurate to claim that their program has moved with breathtaking speed.  The US launched its first satellite in 1958, put its first man in orbit 4 years later in 1962, performed its first manned orbital rendezvous in 1965, orbited men around the moon in 1968, and landed men on the moon in 1969.  That’s 11 years from first satellite to men on the moon.  In contrast, China put their first man in orbit in 2003 and just performed their first manned rendezvous & docking in 2011.  And keep in mind that they did this after the Americans and Russians had been doing the same things repeatedly for 40 years.  It’s one thing to do something for the first time ever; quite another to do it knowing how it’s been done in the past.

    • Well China invented rockets in the first place, and Germany was 30 years ahead of the US  in rocketry in WWII, plus of course Russia beat them into space in 1957 ….so I don’t think the US can claim many firsts in this.

      • Congratulations on completely missing the point of my post.

        • You didn’t have a point.

          • Actually, s/he did. Their point was that China is moving cautiously, not at a “breathtaking speed”, which is the premise of the article.

          • No actually they don’t….and that wasn’t the point of the article to begin with.

    • What you don’t know about is that automated space docking which was performed by China is actually new technology that NASA just recently acquired.  Even the technologies and techniques involved were independent and uniquely developed by these countries.  The devil is in the details we don’t hear about.

  4. Stephen Hawking would be pleased – sounds like an interesting series.
    Stephen Hawking says the colonization of outer space is key to the survival of humankind, predicting it will be difficult for the world’s inhabitants “to avoid disaster in the next hundred years.”
    The renowned astrophysicist explores some of the most remarkable advancements in technology and health with the new U.K.-Canadian series “Brave New World With Stephen Hawking,” debuting Saturday on Discovery World HD.
    “Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million.
    “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”
    Hawking said this is why he favours manned — or as he puts it, “personed” — space flight and encourages further study into how to make space colonization possible.

  5. Hopefully before this moon landing, the lunar module will be equipped with a back up camera, blind spot indicators, a permanently flashing turn signal and sun shades in all the windows. 

  6. I’ll be delighted to see China come to the forefront of the space age, but 30 years from when their manned space program began to landing a man on the moon is hardly “breathtaking speed”.  NASA began in 1958 and landed on the moon in 1969.  That’s “breathtaking speed”, especially since many of the technological innovations required to do this had not been developed anywhere, let alone in the country that wanted to use them.  China is moving at glacial speed by comparison.

    [EDIT] looking down the comments, I see that AtomicWalrus (?) has made the exact same points already.

    • The US didn’t have to deal with 1.3B people coming out of communism and poverty…..seeing as there was a ton of other stuff to do as well…China has moved with breathtaking speed.

    • ” China is moving at glacial speed by comparison.”

      True but we should also point out that:

       a. There is no cold war space race now like there was between the USA and the Soviet Union to be the first to reach the moon

      b. China moves slower but at each step it advances further. They learn from others and improve. Space walking and docking came after only 2 manned space launches. Others did many more launches before they achieved these feats. The US still can’t do what China just did – automatic docking.

      c. China launched its first satellite in 1970 but as Emily has said China focused its efforts on the economy instead. Only 30 years later did it wisely decide that the country could finally spend on space.

      And about China’s civilian and military space sectors not being separate. The USA started the same way.

      And about China copying. The US copied from Germany’s V2 and even brought over the whole German space team including Werner Von Braun.

      Regardless, space has no frontiers like on earth and we should be happy that China is still game with a manned landing on the moon. They may be slow but they are steady.

  7. No. The Americans never got to the moon. It was a conspiracy. Their astronauts landed in Hollywood studio.

    • First, I would like to say that I am proud that China has the guts to pursue manned space flight. If they decide to establish a base on the moon, who is stopping them? NASA has shown themselves incapable of landing humans on the moon in 40 years. 

      However, I have some doubt about the article’s notion that the Chinese are accomplishing all this at break necking speeds. The first Taikonaut was launched in 2003…. almost 10 years ago! Compare this to NASA: they got to the moon in their first ten years!

    • One hopes that you’re joking. Otherwise, you may want to look into a new model of tinfoil hat, since the one you’re currently wearing is less than becoming.

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