On Oct. 16, a Long March 2F rocket lifted off from China’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, placing the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft into orbit. Nearly two days later, the spacecraft and its two-man crew docked with the Tiangong-2 module, launched in September, for what’s scheduled to be a one-month mission.
During their month in space, astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong will be testing Tiangong-2 and performing a number of experiments. The two have also been enlisted as “special correspondents” for the staterun news service Xinhua, providing updates about their mission. In the first update, published Oct. 19, Jing described being so busy he forgot to eat: “We did heat rice and noodles, but in a little while forgot all about them.”
The mission provides another reminder of China’s ambitions in space, with the country making advances both in human and robotic spaceflight at a steady, but not rapid, pace. In the United States, those activities raise questions about whether China represents a threat to American preeminence in space or a missed opportunity for cooperation.
Speaking on a panel with representatives of other space agencies at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, Sept. 26, Wu Yanhua, vice-administrator of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), discussed some of China’s near-term space plans, including a surge of launches near the end of this year. “In the year 2016, we plan to launch 26 times. Up to now we have conducted 14 of them,” said Wu, speaking through an interpreter. The Shenzhou-11 launch brings that total to 15.
Among the launches planned for the rest of 2016 is the inaugural launch of the Long March 5, China’s largest rocket yet and a vehicle rivaling the Delta 4 Heavy as the most powerful rocket in service today. That launch, Wu said, will take place by early November from the country’s new Wenchang spaceport on the island of Hainan.
China is also preparing for the first lunar sample return mission since the former Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976. Chang’e-5 will launch by the end of 2017 to collect samples for return to Earth. Wu said that Chang’e-4, originally built as a backup for the Chang’e-3 lander launched in 2013, will fly in 2018 and attempt to be the first spacecraft to land on the moon’s far side.
A similar plan is in the works for Chang’e-6, a backup for Chang’e-5. “Based on the success of the Chang’e-5 sample return mission, we’ll decide on its next step, on the near side or the far side of the moon,” Wu said. He added the farside missions will require a communications relay satellite that will be launched ahead of Chang’e-4.
China, which has yet to fly a successful Mars mission (it had a small satellite included on Russia’s ill-fated Fobos-Grunt spacecraft in 2011 that failed to escape Earth orbit), is planning an ambitious Mars mission in 2020, with an orbiter, lander and rover. Closer to home, Wu said China is planning to launch 100 satellites in the next 10 years, including a 50-satellite remote sensing constellation.
China’s human spaceflight plans include a space station slated for completion by 2022, for which the current Shenzhou-11 mission is a key milestone towards. But while a human mission to the moon has long been considered a goal of China’s space program, Wu offered few details about when, or even if, China would contemplate such missions.
“As for our manned missions for the moon and beyond, we’re currently in the stage of evaluation on all the possibilities and all the criteria,” he said, not offering any schedules for those missions.
Space race or walkathon?
Chinese space achievements tend to create angst in some parts of Washington. A day after Wu spoke at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, the House Science space subcommittee held a hearing with the provocative title, “Are We Losing the Space Race to China?” But a panel of Chinese experts testifying saw little evidence of a race between the two countries in civil spaceflight.
“I would like to suggest that there is not a space race, per se, but rather that there is a race between the United States and China along multiple different aspects and fronts — political, diplomatic, security — all of which have a space component,” said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“It’s difficult to define exactly what the space race is and determining if we’re even competing,” said Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank focused on policy issues in the Asia- Pacific region.
A decade ago, when NASA was pursuing a human return to the Moon by 2020, many thought China would get there first. “I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are,” then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said in a 2007 speech. “I think when that happens, Americans will not like it, but they will just have to not like it.”
But at the hearing, Dennis Shea, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said a Chinese human mission to the moon was now unlikely before 2030. “China’s space initiatives have progressed at a much slower, more deliberate and more methodical pace than those of the United States,” he said.
The lack of a clear competition between the United States and China in space exploration, though, doesn’t mean the two nations are ready to work together. For the last several years, provisions in appropriations bills have restricted the ability for NASA to engage in bilateral partnerships with China.
Contrary to popular belief, that language is not an absolute prohibition to cooperation between NASA and its Chinese entities like CNSA. The law allows for some cooperation, provided it meets certain conditions and that Congress provides its consent.
NASA has been using that to try and open the door, ever so slightly, to more cooperation with China. In July, Michael Freilich, the head of NASA’s Earth Science Division, met with Chinese officials in Beijing to discuss potential data exchanges. In September, NASA announced an agreement with the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment to support air-traffic management research in China, a month after NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visited China to discuss such research.
But even in what are likely his final months in office, Bolden is careful not to push the bounds of acceptable cooperation. Asked during a press conference at the International Astronautical Congress what he was doing to overturn the current restrictions, he offered a one-word answer even before the reporter finished his question: “Nothing.”
“We would like to be able to work even more closely” with China, Bolden said after citing the aeronautics and other agreements, “but that will come with time.”
However, that time may not be soon. At the House hearing, members showed no signs of loosening those limitations. “Any NASA bill should permanently codify the restrictions on cooperation with China, while also discouraging others from partnering with the Chinese,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla).
Other nations, though, aren’t similarly encumbered by cooperation. “While we don’t work with China, you know who does? Everybody else,” said Chirag Parikh, former director of space policy at the White House National Security Council, in an Oct. 20 talk at Rice University.
“There is opportunity there,” he said of greater U.S.-China cooperation. “We just need to make sure that we follow the law.”
So for now, the two nations’ programs will remain in the limbo of neither competing nor cooperating to any significant degree. Jing and Chen will carry out their experiments on Tiangong-2 at the same time as astronauts on the International Space Station tend to their own research, working figuratively and literally in different orbits.