domenica 14 luglio 2013

Five More Stars in Space

In the Chinese aerospace community there is a story, more of a legend, which claims that the Americans once offered a moon rock for one of the famous Qin emperor’s terra-cotta soldiers. The Chinese refused. They were sure that getting to the moon was nothing more than a matter of time.[1]

When, during the 1978 negotiations over the normalization of diplomatic relations, U.S. National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, gave a 1-gram moon rock to Chairman Hua Guofeng as a gesture of goodwill, the Chinese passed it to scientists who broke it up and produced dozens of scientific papers describing their findings.

This story tells us nothing new, really. The Chinese have always been a proud and curious people, but it is yet to be known what kind of achievements these two peculiar characteristics put together could signify for China’s next big adventure: the space exploration.

Qian Goes East

The story of the birth, death and rebirth of the Chinese space program is a curious one, full of twists, setbacks, turnovers and sudden sprints. It started when the Fifth Academy of the National Defense Ministry was founded on October 8, 1956, with the involvement of Qian Xuesen, a U.S.-educated engineer recognized as one of the fathers of the Chinese space program.  

Qian was possibly the smartest Chinese on the planet. He studied in the 1930s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and at the California Institute of Technology, becoming one of the leading rocket scientists in the U.S. He also participated in the Manhattan Project, contributing to the development of the first atomic bomb. But those were challenging times for Chinese in the U.S., and when the communists took control of China, Qian was accused of being one of their foreign supporters. Consequently, after being under house arrest for several years, he was allowed to go back to his country in 1955. In the following half century, he became one of the driving forces of the Chinese space program.

The Dragon in a Space Suit

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit in October 1957, Chinese leader Mao Zedong was very impressed by the achievement and encouraged his people to build their own man-made satellite. He wanted to put a huge two-ton satellite into orbit in order to dwarf the Explorer that the U.S. launched shortly after, or as he called it: “the chicken egg of the Americans,” even though most of his people were struggling daily with poverty and famine.

Soon after came the disastrous Great Leap Forward, which slowed the efforts of the Chinese scientists and reminded the politicians that, after all, China was still a poor, underdeveloped country. Quickly they understood that the two-ton satellite was not much more feasible than the Great Leap Forward itself, so they reduced their aspirations. There is a reason why it is called “rocket science,” and they realized that building a satellite was not possible without a rocket to carry it up.

Dong Fang Hong I was launched into orbit on April 24, 1970
Following the pragmatic approach suggested by Deng Xiaoping in January 1959, the scientists started to develop a more modest liquid-fueled rocket from scratch. Not as ambitious as launching a two-ton satellite into orbit, but at least this project was a realistic step in the right direction. After some years they successfully developed China’s first indigenously designed liquid-fueled rocket and launched it on February 19, 1960. The rocket reached an altitude of only 8 kilometers, but this is considered the first landmark on China’s difficult road to putting a satellite in space. After ten years, on April 24, 1970 Dong Fang Hong I (The East is Red I) was launched into orbit as China became the fifth nation to achieve spaceflight capabilities.

The Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and the 1970s slowed down the space effort. Many scientists involved in the program were accused of being in league with the West, and many were seized, questioned, tortured, and eventually sent to work in the countryside. The Chinese space program suffered greatly in those years. However, after Mao Zedong died and the Gang of Four was arrested, the Cultural Revolution officially ended, and the progressive communist Deng Xiaoping became the facto leader of the country. He was a supporter of the Chinese space program and decided that it was the right time for China to have its own communications satellite. However, to build one from scratch would have required too much time and effort. He therefore suggested to simply purchase one from the Americans. Negotiations with the westerners started but ended up without any results.

As had happened in the past with their first space endeavor, in the end Chinese scientists had to build their own communications satellite without help, starting from the very bottom. After many attempts and setbacks, China overcame once again the odds and finally placed its first communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit in April 1984.

It is useful to remember that China’s space effort (particularly its manned space program) was languishing during this period because of political and economic events. There was, however, a latent will to go forward. U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s famous speech on March 23, 1983 announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), commonly known as “Star Wars,” reportedly gave new propulsion to the Chinese space program. Reagan’s speech started a new debate in the country over the role of science, research, and technology. This discussion eventually led to the rebuilding of the human spaceflight program. Again the Chinese considered at first to purchase the technology they needed, this time from the Russians, but the two countries could not reach an agreement. Once more China basically had to start from scratch and build an indigenous program. With hard work, money, and resources generously poured into the effort, in the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s they launched four unmanned spaceships (Shenzhou I to Shenzhou IV), building up slowly but consistently their own manned spacecraft program.

Yang Liwei, the first Chinese sent into space
Finally, on October 15, 2003, Lt. Col. Yang Liwei became the first Chinese sent into space, and his country became the third sovereign nation to launch humans into outer space, accomplishing what the Soviet Union and the U.S had achieved more than 40 years before.
Two years later, on October 12, 2005, the Shenzhou VI manned aircraft continued the Chinese space program this time sending two taikonauts into space. The third manned mission was in September 2008, when Zhai Zhigang performed the first Chinese spacewalk. Three years later China launched the box car-sized Tiangong I module into space to lay the foundation for a future space station. Tiangong I was soon followed by unmanned Shenzhou VIII spacecraft. The space vehicle docked successfully by remote control with the Tiangong I module, proving that China was able to master this delicate technique. The next mission in space was completed in summer 2012 by two men and the first Chinese woman. During this mission the crew carried out China’s first manual docking, a maneuver already mastered by Russians and Americans in the 1960s. The last effort in space, the 15-day Shenzhou-10 flight in which the Chinese stayed in orbit the longer than they had ever done before, ended in June 2013 and demonstrated to the Chinese people and the world that they were quite ready for the next stage.

The Space Pursuit

When the Chinese started their manned space program in 1992, they created a 30-year long schedule. One is amazed to see how much they stick with it to the present day. Regardless of what some U.S. Congressmen, the mainstream media and in general people suspicious of Chinese’s space ambitions think, the culminating phase of this program has always been very clear: to put a space station in Earth’s orbit by 2020. Now they are well on the way to doing just that. But first, they knew they needed to master space flight and prove they were able to get someone in orbit and safely land him back home. They also needed to demonstrate advanced spaceflight capabilities (docking, maneuvering, orbital construction, communication, long-term life-support, etc.). The launch of manned missions Shenzhou V to Shenzhou X proved that they were capable to do all of those things. In the last ten years Chinese were able to put a man into space, perform their first space walk and successfully grasp space rendezvous and docking technologies. If you are not familiar with the history of manned space exploration, this could sound like a big deal. In a sense it is, but the twisted meanings of these accomplishments than one can read in a huge number of web pages, blogs, articles, essays, even books is frankly ridiculous, when is not annoying.

Losing perspective: a giant leap for the Chinese Space Program
Whether these sources completely ignore the last 50 years of space exploration history or simply don’t know it, their content is full of ideas such as: “Chinese space dominance”,[2]China’s space ambitions[3] and of course the ubiquitous “space race with the U.S.[4]
According to some of these works, China could very well be on the way to building its permanent moon settlement and start mining Helium-3[5] or sending men to Mars.[6] And why not? There are also rumors that they have been building their own Enterprise to fight the Klingons for control of the Alpha Quadrant.

The less pompous truth is that in space technology terms they have just discovered the wheel. And they are not yet sure how to use it. Jeffrey Kluger, a senior writer at TIME magazine, reminds us that someone else has been doing the same stuff Chinese did (and more) for the last forty years:

But what about those Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs? China’s been in the manned space game for nine years now and has managed four successful launches. The U.S. flew six Mercury missions from 1961 to 1963; ten Geminis in the 20 months from March 1965 to November 1966; and eleven Apollos from 1968 to 1972. In the nine months from Oct. 1968 to July 1969 alone, we popped off the first five Apollos—including three visits to the moon and the first landing.”[7]

Despite numerous westerns press accounts suggesting otherwise, the (modest) space station has remained the Chinese spaceflight program’s ultimate goal. This bears repeating: their declared objective is not going to the moon, not landing on Mars, not to create a Death Star, just building their own space station. This is no space race. At best, it is a space pursuit. 

Chinese Space Presence: What’s the End Game?

So, why are there Chinese in space? If they are not yet ready to terraform Mars or threaten U.S. national security with their starships, why are they mimicking space tasks already accomplished half a century ago by Americans and Soviets? There are several answers to this question but none of them involve quantum torpedoes. Gregory Kulacki, a senior analyst on China’s defense and arms control policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains it all talking to Link Asia:

Well, space technology is important in almost everything we do in modern society, to communication, transportation, navigation as well as to Earth’s observation, disaster management and military and security issues. So the Chinese made the decision early in the 1980s when they decided to modernize their economy and society that they were going to make a major investment in space technology.”[8]

The space station has remained China's ultimate goal
International prestige, national pride and of course geopolitical influence are other parts of the answer. One could also simply ask the Chinese what’s their end game in space, particularly when it comes to their manned space program. According to China National Space Administration (CNSA) China’s space program can be sum up in three phases. Phase one is the launch of a manned space vehicle in space. The Chinese accomplished this first stage with the Shenzhou V and VI missions. Phase two is part of a more complicate and longer process that will eventually grant the Chinese their own completely functional space station. It started in 2011 with the launch of Tiangong I, the space laboratory that has been used as a test for future Tiangong modules (Tiangong II and III) that will constitute the backbone of the definitive Chinese space station. The docking of both an unmanned and a manned space vehicle to Tiangong I mark the final part of phase two which has been successfully carried out with the Shenzhou VIII and XI missions. This stage officially ended with the Shenzhou X mission in June 2013, China's longest manned space mission to date.

At the end of phase two the Chinese mastered rendezvous and docking capabilities, which were pivotal to completing and maintaining a larger space station complex. During phase three, Tiangong I is expected to be substituted with the larger Tiangong II and Tiangong III modules. Their tasks will be to perform space experiments, develop space medicines, introduce new technologies and produce new vegetables and new materials in space.

So, if you ask the Chinese, their main concern in space in the near future might disappoint many storytellers out there: growing crystals at zero gravity hardly threaten the supremacy of the U.S. in space and it does not make that bold, strong title that captures anybody’s attention. Of course one might doubt CNSA’s version when it comes to discussing China’s space aims. After all, if I ask the CEO of a big oil company why is that they are pumping up tens of thousands of barrels per day, the answer will hardly be: “because we want to make money out of it”. It is because they want to create jobs and opportunities across the country, because they are helping fuel its growth, giving a future to their employees. The profit aspect does not suit ads very well. In fact, it could very well be a collateral damage.

So how do we know what China really wants to achieve with its space program? They want to build their space station, fine, but what about the bigger picture? What will they do when their space station is complete? The general answer is of course that we don’t know for sure. The only thing we can do is try to guess. However, there is also another aspect rarely considered but nonetheless fascinating. Maybe the Chinese themselves don’t know what happens next.

Sleepy Eagle, Eager Dragon

Even though China is at list forty years behind the U.S. in space technology, to catch up is not impossible, especially considering the particular political and economic circumstances America is facing nowadays. One could read essays and books about the stripped NASA budget, the growing concern of the public over the expensive amusement for the satisfaction of some engineers and scientists, the lack of the culture of innovation, the absence of ambition, the need of vision and the loss of ingenuity.

America's Space Program: surrendering the final frontier
Just look at the way the Americans are going to space nowadays. Well, more like the way they are carried to space. With the Space Shuttle program ended, Russians provide Americans the “taxi service” they need using the Soyuz spacecraft, charging a modest $63 million per seat. The stagnation of America’s space program is no longer news and you don’t need to see beyond the end of your nose to notice it. In fact, you just need twenty minutes of your time to have it eloquently explained by the space exploration advocate and astrophysicist Neil Degrass Tyson. Speaking on March 7, 2012 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the scientist said:

When I think of our golden era of space exploration, the late 1950s right on up through the early 1970s, over that time very few weeks would go by before there would be an article in a newspaper, in a magazine, where cover story would extol the city of tomorrow, transportation of tomorrow, the home of tomorrow. […] As the Seventies drew to a close we stopped advancing the space frontier, the tomorrow articles faded. We spent the next several decades coasting on the innovations conceived by earlier dreamers. They knew that seemingly impossible things were possible and others among them, those who saw what the previous generation had enabled, witness the Apollo voyages to the moon, even if though they were not the participant. This is the greatest adventure that ever was. Yet if all you do is coast, eventually you slow down while others catch-up and pass you by.”[9]

I mistrust anyone who says that the Chinese are catching up to NASA’s achievements quickly and easily, but don’t get me wrong; if things remain as today, the overtaking will eventually occur. No question about that. Someone is describing this particular long-term competition as “the tortoise and hare race to space” in which “a low-budget, steady program overtakes its flitting, fickle, but better-established, rival.”[10] This idea makes sense. It recognizes the many disadvantages of the Chinese space program and keeps in mind the achievements of the American counterpart, but at the same time it also considers the slowly but steady evolution of the former and the stagnation and lack of leadership of the latter. America’s shoestring budget is not the only reason why this is happening and the fact that the Chinese are pouring notable amounts of money in the space pursuit alone doesn’t explain really anything. One has to look at the context in which all of this is happening.

Think about it. Before Gagarin made his legendary trip people didn’t really know what was going to happen. They didn’t know what to expect. As Jeffrey Kluger pointed out in his article, China’s Space Launch: ‘Wow’ or ‘Meh’: “It’s a familiar joke that before Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space in 1961, people didn’t know whether or not a human being’s eyeballs would explode in zero-g. But the fact is, people didn’t know whether or not a human being’s eyeballs would explode in zero-g. The spacecraft, the spacesuits, the ability to rendezvous, dock, walk in space, reenter safely—every bit of it was new.”

Now it’s not. And what about rendezvous and docking technology, the very basis for any country willing to even start thinking about building a space station? According to John Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Planetary Science at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, hugely complicated procedures have never been done before the Gemini and the Soyuz program. As he explained in an interview broadcasted at CCTV 9: “Now there is a long history of rendezvous and docking. China knows in general that it can be done and has hardware that is capable of doing this. The demonstration of that hardware can be done in one or two flights. It doesn’t require the Gemini program which took twelve flights to invent, and prove and develop and test rendezvous and docking procedures.”[11]

The outcome of the "space race" will depend on both runners
To put it simply, China is profiting from decades of accomplishments by other countries, including microchips, satellite relays, space-age materials, onboard electronics and computing power, to name a few. In other words, China is pursuing 1960s achievements with a 21st century technology. Considering this, the Chinese space pursuit might become much more interesting in the near future for the three following reasons. First, because they take their cues from countries considered leaders in the space exploration sector, and learn a great deal from them. Second, they benefit from the successes and the failures of those nations, and take example from them in order to choose a particular line of action or avoid any major misstep. Finally, they have a clear plan for the near future and know what to do and how to do it. Their progresses are slow, true, but as Professor John Lewis emphasizes: “there is a much lower level of risk associated with a program that is done carefully and deliberately.” This is a good strategy to avoid any major setback that could jeopardize China’s entire space program.

Whether or not there will be this anticipated overtake, one thing is clear: it will depend on both China and America, but I daresay it will depend more on the latter, on what this country will or will not do as well as on the many implications of its choices.

There is something striking in the observation made by political philosopher John Gray who, writing few years ago about America’s financial problems and its fading global leadership in the London paper The Observer, noted: “In a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union, an entire model of government and the economy has collapsed. […] How symbolic that Chinese astronauts take a spacewalk while the US Treasury Secretary is on his knees.”

Will China Return the Favor?

Science fiction?
I know I’m asking quite a bit now, but try to imagine being in the future, let’s say 40 years from now, sitting on your sofa and looking at the 2050s version of your TV announcing: “The Chinese minister of Outer Space Affairs is expected to visit Washington D.C. tomorrow. He will be giving a 1-gram Mars rock to the President, as a gesture of goodwill during the negotiations over the normalization of diplomatic relations. The fragment is part of a three pounds rock that the taikonaut Wei Xiaoping has brought back from the Red planet two years ago, when his team successfully landed on the surface of the planet becoming the first ever group of humans to set foot on Mars.”

As a science fiction and fantasy writer, I admit it; I frequently indulge myself, creating unlikely, exotic ideas that later I convert into stories or books for my own amusement, and for the pleasure of anybody willing to read them.

But, believe it or not, for many people this is no fiction, it is tomorrow’s news. I’m not talking about delusional “easterners”, Chinese nationalist or wit-lacking people. I’m talking about NASA’s scientists and engineers, people that have been working on space exploration all their life. I’m talking about members of the U.S. Congress like Rep. Ted Poe, Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. John Carter just to name a few, all of them gathering to “raise an issue that is of real concern” for the American people and talking about “the Chinese lunar program”, “China’s space station” and “Chinese miraculous turnaround.”[12]

The Chinese space program has landed in the U.S. Congress. The per se reliability of the information given on that occasion does not concern the point I want to make. It is the context that is of some interest here. Fifteen years ago a discussion on Chinese space hegemony might have been addressed in a comic show. Now it resonates in the U.S. Congress. Does this really mean anything for the American space program? Is it a signal that things are changing? Not really. When they were speaking, the Congressmen had no public. The chamber was empty. This says quite a bit about America’s willingness when it comes to space endeavor: they are concerned, but at the same time they don’t really care. The hare has stopped and the tortoise keeps moving forward.

So what about that Mars rock now? Could something like that really happen? Let’s see all of this from a more realistic perspective. What will happen when the International Space Station will be decommissioned in the near future and the only functioning space station will display a red field charged with five golden stars? What will be America’s reaction then? Someone says that we might see that very reaction sooner rather than later. Again, we have to carefully consider not the Chinese, but the U.S. Congress itself.

On NPR’s Science Friday, Ira Flatow raised a very interesting point regarding this issue. He asked: “How is this going to sit with - let's say you look at Congress 10 years now. If the Chinese have a space station, the U.S. no longer is orbiting in the space station, it's not invited to go to a Chinese space station, let's say, or is not allowed to have anything to do with the Chinese space program, are we going to see, do you suspect, some reversal in Congress saying where the heck are we, why were we left out of these things?[13]

The Chinese Space Program grows ambitious
Fair enough, and by that time there might be more than a bunch of Republican Congressmen facing an empty chamber. Or not? It is Professor Joan Johnson-Freese that provides an interesting answer to Ira’s concerns: I think you're exactly right. I think there will be a loud cry of how did this happen. […] it's very difficult to do manned spaceflight in a democracy because while we all like spaceflight, we like watching it, when it comes to funding from government funds, it simply doesn't get the priority that things like jobs and roads and education and defense gets. In China, they have an authoritarian government that can keep funding it to whatever level they choose, as long as they choose to do it, and they will do that as long as they get successful results from it.”

How interesting and how sad this is. America’s ingenuity, the propellant of its space achievements, is the very outcome of America’s democracy. How can it possibly be that today the biggest authoritarian State on the planet is suitable for space exploration and the most powerful democracy is not? At least this time the answer seems clear. In democracy you choose, and as the bold generation of Americans under President J.F. Kennedy choseto go to the Moon”, today’s America is choosing to stay at home.

Investing in Ingenuity

There is some sand on the white-pearl shining wing of SpaceShipTwo. An engineer spots it and quickly cleans the wing with a special napkin. The suborbital, air-launched spaceplane designed for the first generation of space tourists is ready to transport its six passengers in space any moment now. The spaceplane will be carried to its launch altitude by a jet-powered mothership before being released to fly on into the upper atmosphere, powered by a rocket motor. There, its passengers will feel what it is like zero gravity for 4 to 5 minutes while they glimpse Earth from an altitude of 109 km. The spaceplane will then glide back to our planet and perform a conventional runway landing. This is not science fiction.

A flight ticket for the stars
Virgin Galactic is just one of the most famous outcomes of private space flights enterprise or, more simply, privately founded space companies that have popped up in recent years. But it’s not only about tourism. Planetary Resources, Inc. is an American company formed in November 2010. Its stated goal is to "expand Earth's natural resource base" by developing and deploying the technologies for asteroid mining. The space transport company SpaceX made history on May 2012 as the world's first privately held company to send a cargo payload to the International Space Station. These latest new entries in the space panorama are variables that haven’t yet been fully grasped by public opinion. While the “space race” between America and China has received extensive media coverage for many years now, privately founded space companies have been treated so far like an amusement, a strange curiosity of modern times: expensive, premature, unreliable, dream-fueled; an impossible extravagance. It reminds me of something.

While this new reality in development is still at an early stage, it nevertheless shows us something very important: competition in space is good; we have the cold war to prove that. For the foreseeable future, national space programs like NASA and CNSA will maintain the lead in investment in this sector. However, if the outer space starts to be seen as a place where investing money to make money, things could change quickly. Keeping that in mind, within the next few years, almost six hundred paid-up customers will have taken their space trip on board private companies like Virgin Galactic.

As I try to discern the science fiction from the reality, a bewildering thought grasps me. Maybe America’s ingenuity has not been lost after all; it has just been handed over.


The author would like to thank Alessandro Tamagnini, Michael Langone and Debbie Carroll for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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[1] For further information on this episode, please see Gregory Kulacki and Jeffrey G. Lewis, A place for One’s Mat: China’s Space Program 1956-2003, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2009, p. 19.

[2] Brendan O'Reilly, China floats towards space dominance, Asia Times Online, June 19, 2012, available at

[3] Peter Foster, Should we fear the threat of Chinese 'space dominance'?, The Telegraph, August 24, 2011, available at

[5] China Launches Second Moon Mission: Is Mining Rare Helium 3 an Ultimate Goal?, The Daily Galaxy, October 03, 2010, available at

[6] Morris Jones, China Goes To Mars, Space Daily, October 31, 2010, available at

[7] Jeffrey Kluger, China’s Space Launch: ‘Wow’ or ‘Meh’?, TIME NewsFeed, June 16, 2012, available at

[8] For the complete interview

[9] For the complete speech

[10] Nicholas Gerbis, Is China winning the new space race?, How Stuff Works?, available at

[11] For the complete interview

[12] For the complete speech

[13] For the complete discussion