On October 1, 2019 China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. President Xi Jinping took the opportunity to proclaim that “no force will stop or shake China or its people from achieving its goals” of becoming the primary global power.
Outer space is an integral part of Xi’s China dream of broadcasting Chinese power and influence, and a critical component of his Civil-Military Integration Strategy. Consequently, by October 1, 2049, when China celebrates its 100th year of existence, outer space presence and military space capacity will play a key role.
So, what should we expect from China in outer space over the next 30 years?
According to a special report by Namrata Goswami for The Diplomat, China’s space ambitions far exceed any other space faring nation in both range and long-term strategy. This includes an incremental strategy of developing space capacity in sequence.
First, build space capacity for cost effective launch and access. Second, launch its own permanent space station. Third, create capacity to dominate cislunar space. Fourth, once cislunar is secured, develop the capacity for sustainable presence on the moon, to include in-space manufacturing as well as mature space-based solar power technology to power its lunar base and sustain human presence. Finally, once that is accomplished, develop capacity for deep space exploration and resource extraction from asteroids.
China is investing and developing space capacity that equips it to meet those goals. For instance, on October 27, China transported the Long March 5 rocket to Qinglan Port in Wenchang in South China’s Hainan province. The Long March 5 launch is planned for the end of the year.
China’s space engineers spent two years correcting a malfunction in the rocket after it failed at launch on July 2, 2017. A successful launch of the Long March 5 with a payload capacity of 25 tonnes to Low Earth Orbit and 14 tonnes in Geostationary Orbit (over two times the capacity of previous carrier rockets), is critical for the China Lunar Exploration Program’s Chang’e 5 launch scheduled for 2020, The Diplomat reported.
The Chang’e 5 lunar mission is aimed at lunar sample return. The mission will include a lander, an orbiter, an ascender, and a returner. The Chang’e 5 plans to demonstrate takeoff from the moon, rendezvous and docking in lunar orbit, and high speed re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
By 2020, China intends to send a Mars probe that will include an Orbiter and a Lander. China aspires for a 2036 first human mission to the moon.
These incremental lunar explorations are a testimony to the vision of CLEP’s main scientists and policymakers, to include chief scientist Ouyang Ziyuan, Sun Zezhou, the chief designer of the Chang’e 4 probe; Liu Hanlong, the chief director of Chang’e 4’s 3 kg bio-regenerative life support module experiment; and Wu Weiren, chief designer of the Chang-e lunar exploration program.
Ouyang articulated as far back as 2002, that “the moon could serve as a new and tremendous supplier of energy…whoever first conquers the moon benefits first.” This strategic thinking for outer space extends China’s territorial claims on Earth, based on first presence. Wu specified that China must establish its presence on the Lunar South Pole by 2030, given the presence of sunlight and water-ice, The Diplomat reported.
Ye Peijian, head of CLEP, counselled in 2018 that if China does not take advantage of its present space faring capacities and establish presence on the Moon, others will take over, and China will lose out. Ye was awarded China’s highest state honor by Xi during the 70th anniversary celebration, one of the first recipients of such a honor.
To meet its extended goals of permanent human presence on the moon and constructing SBSP satellites in LEO by 2025 and in GEO by 2030, China is developing the Long March 9 to be flight tested in 2030. This rocket development is aimed at that SBSP launch to GEO (by 2030), the launch of the Chang’e 7 (aimed at surveying the Lunar South Pole in 2030), and the Chang’e 8 (2035), that will test key technologies like 3D printing, The Diplomat reported.
According to Li Hong, the deputy general manager at China Aerospace Science and Technology, “the Long March 9 super heavy-lift carrier rocket will be capable of lifting 140 metric tons of payload into a low-Earth orbit, or a 50-ton spacecraft to a lunar transfer orbit. The giant rocket will also be able to ferry a 44-ton payload to a Mars transfer orbit.”
As for other space capacity, China became the first country in the world to establish a US$30 million state funded SBSP base plant in Chongqing’s Bishan district early this year. The base plant is being constructed under the guidance of the Chongqing Collaborative Innovation Research Institute for Civil-Military Integration in southwestern China in partnerships with researchers from Chongqing University.
Technologies being tested include the construction of SBSP satellites in GEO using automated assembly and the wireless transmission of power. To propel faster space travel, China is investing in nuclear powered spacecraft, to be flight tested by 2040, to enable mining of asteroids and deep space exploration, The Diplomat reported.
China is also encouraging its private space startups to include OneSpace, LandSpace, Linkspace, and iSpace. iSpace, also known as Interstellar Glory Space Technology, became the first Chinese private space company to launch its rocket, Hyperbola 1, successfully into orbit on July 25, 2019. iSpace also showcased its Hyperbola 2, a reusable rocket, in the 2019 Zhongguancun Forum. Reusability will be game changer for China’s space program.
From the perspective of grand strategy and policy, under X’s leadership, China is not afraid to broadcast its power and use its influence for bargaining. Xi’s championing of space as an integral part of his grand strategy, and equating the “spirit of aerospace” to the “historic spirit of the Long March” that Mao undertook, clearly demonstrate the critical importance of outer space to China’s future.