A Long March delivery rocket containing the Tianzhou 1 spaceship is seen at the Wenchang Launch Center in China's southern Hainan province prior to its launch in April 2017. Photo: Xinhua

The first true rocket was fired by China in 1232, and when the United States landed a man on the moon exactly 50 years ago, China was mired in political turmoil. The country didn’t send an astronaut into space until 2003. But now it’s catching up. China is quickly becoming one of the most ambitious and pioneering nations when it comes to exploring space. The Chinese space program is one the fastest-growing in the world today.

From its relatively humble beginnings 60 years ago, the Chinese program has come to be one of the biggest contenders in the modern-day space race. Between its inception in the late 1950s and the turn of the century, the program experienced a gradual buildup in terms of technology, infrastructure and capability. In time, this would set the stage for China becoming an official major power in space. By 2003, the first crewed mission to Earth orbit was successfully launched. That same year, the China National Space Agency (CNSA) inaugurated the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, which envisaged sending a series of robotic missions to the moon in preparation for an eventual crewed mission.

Early this year, China became the first country to land a probe on the far side of the moon. It is a technical achievement that neither the United States nor Russia has pursued. It is symbolic of the growth of the Chinese space program and the capabilities it has amassed, and the consequences extend to the US as that country’s government considers global competition in the future of space exploration. If China’s successes continue to accumulate, could the US find itself engaged in a new space race? What will the capabilities and accomplishments of China’s space program mean for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)?

The CNSA is arguably the fastest-rising space agency in the world. The Chinese space program has grown considerably in the past two decades and has been mounting increasingly advanced and ambitious missions accordingly. Since its inception in the late 1950s, and its re-formation in the early 1990s, China’s program has made some very impressive accomplishments and has established the country as the third-largest space power.

Late last year, China unveiled a heavy-lift launch vehicle it is developing to carry a next-generation crewed spacecraft and power human spaceflight missions beyond low Earth orbit. It will be designed to send 25 metric tons to trans-lunar injection and 70 tons to low Earth orbit. While apparently in the early stages and with the upcoming Chinese Space Station commanding attention and resources, the designs signal a clear intent to develop capabilities for human spaceflight beyond LEO.

The development of launch-vehicle concepts is a clear indication that there is serious thought in China about human exploration of the moon. The new spacecraft and new crew-rated launcher with their reusability features to challenge Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will be expected to replace the Shenzhou and Long March 2F for LEO missions as well as put the moon within reach.

China is also in the early stages of development of a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Long March 9, capable of lifting 140 metric tons to low Earth orbit, 50 tons to Earth-moon transfer orbit, and 44 tons to Earth-Mars transfer orbit. The Saturn 5-class rocket would serve for launching infrastructure for lunar and other deep space missions, with Chinese officials giving a test-flight date of 2028, with a first use stated to be a Mars sample-return mission.

China became the third country ever to launch a human into space in 2003 and has been expanding its space program ever since. China’s continued stepping up of its capabilities of space exploration and efforts in space technology are a major concern for the Pentagon

China became the third country ever to launch a human into space in 2003 and has been expanding its space program ever since. China’s continued stepping up of its capabilities of space exploration and efforts in space technology are a major concern for the Pentagon.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) hit a rocket-launch milestone by announcing on January 29 that it would aim for more than 50 spacecraft on 30-plus launches in 2019, with major missions including the crucial return-to-flight of the heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket in July. The return-to-flight mission will carry the Shijian-20 communications satellite based on a new, large DFH-5 satellite platform, which supports satellites from 6,500 to 9,000 kilograms.

A successful launch would mean the fourth Long March 5 would then be used to launch the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return toward the moon late this year. The mission will aim to collect up to 2kg of rocks and regolith from a site near Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum on the lunar near side and bring the samples to Earth. A nominal return-to-flight would also clear the way for the test launch of the Long March 5B, a variant designed specifically for lofting the 20-metric-ton modules of the planned Chinese Space Station (CSS) into low Earth orbit.

Space bases

Colonizing the moon, and beyond, has long being a human aspiration. The world is still celebrating the historic landing of China’s Chang’e-4 on the far side of the moon early this year. Just last month, China announced its plans to follow up with three more lunar missions, laying the groundwork for a lunar base. Technological advancements, and the discovery of a considerable source of water close to the lunar poles, have made this idea even more appealing. But how close is China to actually achieving this goal?

Building a lunar base is no different from building the first oil rig out in the ocean. If we focus on the technology currently available, China could start building a base on the moon right now. Of all the possible technologies for building a lunar base, 3D printing offers the most effective strategy. Three-dimensional printing on Earth has revolutionized manufacturing productivity and efficiency, reducing both waste and cost.

China’s vision is to develop the capability to 3D-print both inside and outside of the lunar base. This technology has the potential to make everything from daily items to repair parts for the base. But 3D printing in space is a real challenge. It will require new technologies that can operate in the micro-gravity environment of the moon. Printing machines that are able to shape parts in the vacuum of space must be developed.

Can China build a lunar base? Absolutely. Can human beings survive on the moon and on other planets for the long term? The answer to that is less clear. What is certain is that China will use the next 10 to 15 years to develop the requisite technical capabilities for conducting manned lunar missions and set the stage for space exploration.

Long March series

Just last week, China launched its 300th Long March rocket mission, successfully placing the new communications satellite ChinaSat 6C into orbit. China has also recently developed smaller rockets, the Long March 6, Long March 7 and Long March 11, and has plans to make its Long March 8 booster reusable. A super-heavy-lift Long March 9 booster is also in the works. The Long March series is not China’s only rocket family, but it is responsible for more than 96% of the country’s launches.

China’s first Long March rocket, the Long March 1, was launched on April 24, 1970, carrying the country’s first satellite. It took China 37 years to launch its first 100 Long March missions. The next 100 followed in just over seven years, with the final 100 missions launching in the last four years.

China carried out 37 launches in 2018, all successful, including the Chang’e-4 mission to the lunar far side, the first Hongyan LEO communications satellite, and 18 Beidou satellites, as well as science, weather, communications and remote sensing satellites for a range of civilian and military applications. The country plans to launch more than 30 missions this year. The greatly increased cadence saw China account for roughly a third of the 103 global launches in 2018, putting it ahead of the US and Russia for the first time, as the country continues to establish a range of space-based infrastructure and capabilities.

China opened the space market to private-sector investment in 2014 to help its technology sector shift focus from commodity smartphones and televisions to sophisticated semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and reusable rockets. More than 60 Chinese companies have entered the commercial space industry in the past three years. The problem, however, remains whether there will be a commercial market big enough for the slew of launches.

Another development of interest is China’s work in quantum satellites. Priorities include unconditional security of network data across long distances, ultimately creating a global quantum network of classical data secured by quantum cryptographic keys. Other areas where China is concentrating significant research and development resources include nuclear fusion, and the deployment and hardening of an expanding hypersonic technology.

China is also developing constellations if surveillance, navigation and communication satellites, and making considerable progress in space lift, human spaceflight, and lunar exploration programs. China hopes to expand its launch-vehicle industry to support commercial launches and make rapid satellite launch services available to foreign customers. It will probably launch, assemble in-orbit, and operate a crewed Chinese space station before 2025.

China’s space program continues to mature rapidly. In terms of space exploration, China has demonstrated significant skills. Does this signal a new space race between the US and China? As a docent in the National Air and Space Museum, I can say that even if China’s rise heralds a new space race, not all consequences will be negative.

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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