While the recent Shenzhou-9 flight was a major accomplishment for China’s space program, featuring the first crewed docking by a Chinese spacecraft and also the first flight of a female Chinese astronaut, the flight did not get that much attention—or reaction—in the US, as previously noted here. Some, though, are finding ways to use the mission to make a point about US space policy, or to warn China not to follow in the footsteps of the US in human spaceflight.
Last Friday the Marshall Institute and the Techamerica Space Enterprise Council held a forum on China’s space program and its implications for the US; I summarized the forum in an article in The Space Review earlier this week. The panelists noted that while the public focus has been on Chinese human spaceflight program, the bigger issue is the growing capabilities of China’s space program overall and its doctrine of “information superiority”.
They also played down the idea of space race between the two countries: “China is not racing with the United States, whether it’s manned space or unmanned space,” said Dean Cheng of The Heritage Foundation. “The Chinese have their own program, their own objectives, their own timeline.” One reason for a lack of a race is that Americans, including policymakers, have been treating the Chinese accomplishments with a “been-there, done-that” attitude. “For China to be considered a threat in Americans’ minds, they’re going to have to do something new, and not something new for China, but something new for the world,” said Leslee Gilbert, former staff director of the House Science Committee.
Not everyone shares that attitude, though. “[T]he humans who are now winning the space race come from the People’s Republic of China,” writes Douglas MacKinnon in an op-ed in the New York Times. “It is clear from their own propaganda that China means to replace us as the ‘world’s leading spacefaring nation.’”
MacKinnon, in his op-ed, seeks to elevate space policy in the 2012 campaign here in the US, using the growing capability—and, in his view, threat—posed by China’s human and other spaceflight programs as a catalyst. “As China launches military satellite after military satellite while declaring its intention to colonize the moon, maybe preeminence in space should be” an issue that President Obama and Governor Romney should discuss in the campaign, he argues. (Keep in mind that the Chinese government has not officially declared “its intention to colonize the Moon”, only that it is studying potential future human missions to the Moon.)
MacKinnon claims that during the transition period after the 2008 election, then President-elect Obama “contemplated combining the best of the space programs at the Pentagon and NASA to compete with the rapidly accelerating Chinese space program,” which he then abandoned. He cites as a source for that a Bloomberg News article from January 2009 that cites claims that the incoming administration would “probably tear down long-standing barriers between the U.S.’s civilian and military space programs” to counter Chinese capabilities. Exactly how that would have worked is unclear, but a couple of the specific plans cited in the article—canceling the Ares 1 rocket and making use of EELVs for human spaceflight—have actually happened, contrary to MacKinnon’s claims, with the Ares 1 scrapped as part of the Constellation cancellation and several companies making plans to use the Atlas 5 for commercial crewed vehicles.
In an op-ed in the Washington Times, Cheng offers his own advice on how the US should respond to “China’s space challenge”. The US, he believes, should think about space in “broader” terms and do more to publicize its achievements to demonstrate its capabilities to the world. He cites, as he did in last week’s forum as one example, the relative lack of attention given to the recent news that Voyager 1 approaching the edge of the solar system (it has not, contrary to Cheng’s op-ed, actually left the solar system yet.)
Cheng also believes the US should rely more on its commercial space capabilities. “Space exploration arguably requires the government; the business of space exploitation, whether resupplying the ISS or promoting space tourism, does not,” he writes. He also cautions about cooperation in space exploration, especially with China, as well as engaging China in “new international covenants or codes of conduct regarding space.”
Meanwhile, Bob Davis of the Wall Street Journal has some advice for China about its human space ambitions: don’t do it! “If China goes on to repeat the [Apollo 11] mission 60 or so years after the original, it would prove what? To my mind, it would represent a poverty of imagination, not riches,” he argues. The piece is as much about his dislike for human spaceflight than it is about China’s program, however, beyond suggesting that China might be better off spending its money on terrestrial pursuits than on spaceflight. It seems unlikely China will heed his advice, based on its current activities.