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.