Will the Chinese space program overtake NASA in the near future?

The 21st century has seen the rise of China in every aspect of influence—military, economic and political. Now will this trend of influence extend to space exploration is the obvious question. China is a relatively newcomer as a spacefaring country (the China National Space Agency just being established in 1993). However, it has risen as a major spacefaring country at a phenomenal speed. It already has all kinds of satellites –remote sensing satellites, satellite navigation system and communication satellites. To date it has already put 11 astronauts in space including two women. The Chinese space program has been achieving new milestones year after year.

As in other areas, China has not been much transparent of its space policy. But it has released three white papers akin to its wider space policy stating that it wants to conduct state exploration with purely scientific objectives and for peaceful purposes. These papers which were released in 2001, 2006 and 2011, envisage china’s growing space ambitions. In addition, China’s space policy can also be understood in the context of its grand strategy. Its grand strategy involves the pursuit of the ‘China dream’ which is an improvement of livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening. This dream resonates with what the Chinese leaders call as China’s rejuvenation. Throughout the last 2000 years, China had many times found itself at the centre of wealth and power. Its decline between the years 1839 and 1949 is blamed on the foreign subjugation. So the rejuvenation is about regaining China’s status as a great global power and one that has control over its own fate. As space is considered to be the frontier of technological advancement and thereby the benefits that it can provide to society, it’s not hard to understand where China’s policy on space stands in the context of this background.

The United States has always been wary of the growing influence of China in space. Owing to security reasons, the US federal law has banned NASA from conducting collaboration with the Chinese space program since 2011. This move however has been undeterred for china since it has found other partners such as ESA and Russia with whom it has collaborated and created avenues for technological transfer. China has shown little signs of restraint and its space power has been growing, so much so that by 2020, it aims to create space companies in par with such world class aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martins and Airbus group.

However, in a report, ‘Pathways to exploration: Rationales and approaches for a US program for human space exploration,’ published by The National Academies, it has been suggested that the exclusion of China could be counterproductive for the United States as it closes the door for future international partnerships and ‘substantially reduces the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars.’

Meanwhile, China has made fruitful collaborations with other space agencies like ESA and Roscosmos. Currently, China and ESA have been working together in a space—weather observatory. There is also a long-term plan for a European astronaut to travel aboard a Shenzhou spacecraft to the Chinese space station which is due to be launched in 2018. Similarly, co-operations with Russia include but are not limited to the fields of engine technology, electronics, joint research of the universe, development of technologies and optimized use of space resources.

The annual budget of around $6 billion for the Chinese space program for 2016 is nowhere in comparison to the US annual budget of around $40 billion. Yet the pace at which it has caught up with the major spacefaring nations in the last two decades and the overall ascendency of its influence in international politics, militarization and economy in the same period is compelling enough for observers to predict the imminent Chinese leadership in space in the coming decade.

If the Chinese space achievements look like what the US and Russia have achieved decades ago, how about the recent launch of world’s first quantum satellite. Beijing claims this satellite will help to develop a hack proof communication system and will have implications on military and commercial applications. Yet another Chinese feat—plan to send probes to the dark side of the moon will be an engineering marvel involving a robot lander, unmanned lunar rover with sensors, cameras and an infrared spectrometer. This mission might as well search for helium-3, an element which can be used for nuclear fusion. Furthermore, for the first time, Chinese orbital missions have tied with that of the USA in 2016 with a total of 22 rocket launches.

Despite the obvious progress, China’s space program is still lagging far behind that of the US. The need for space exploration today is the international cooperation between various parties. As suggested by the National Academies’ report, mutual cooperation is the best way forward. The United States Congresses decision to refuse to cooperate may foil China’s ambitions for rapid progress, but it will not be able to stop it from becoming a major space super power. One thing that China has had to its advantage is the amount of ready made knowledge that it acquired through its co-operations with other space agencies, which otherwise would have taken decades to achieve on its own. As to the question of whether China will ever overtake the US as a space super power, or at least, be on equal footing, I think it is reasonable to assume that it will still take a decade.