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A New Space Race? What China's Tiangong 1 Launch Means for NASA

China has launched Tiangong 1, a prototype for its proposed orbital space laboratory. While a successful mission will be a significant step forward for China, it’s unclear what (if anything) it will mean for NASA and the United States’ long-standing...
September 29, 2011, 4:00am

China has launched Tiangong 1, a prototype for its proposed orbital space laboratory. While a successful mission will be a significant step forward for China, it's unclear what (if anything) it will mean for NASA and the United States' long-standing dominance in space.

China's space program, China National Space Administration (CNSA), has its technological roots in the Cold War. Not long after the People's Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev formed an alliance known as the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. When the US threatened to attack China with nuclear bombs during the Korean war, China began developing its own nuclear arsenal. This branch of militarization reflected the PRC's Soviet friendship; the first Chinese missile was a reverse engineered replica of the Soviet R-2 rocket.

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When the partnership between the PRC and USSR ended in 1960, China still held Soviet rocket secrets and continued the development of missiles with the R-2 as a base throughout the 1960s. But even with a successful model, it would be a decade before China entered space. On April 24, 1970, it put an unmanned satellite into orbit. A second followed on March 3, 1971.

This success led to China's first attempt at a manned spaceflight program. On March 15, 1971, the first 19 taikonauts (The term for Chinese astronaut – taikong is the Chinese word for space, naut the Greek for sailor) were selected. Politics, however, got in the way and the manned program quickly fell apart.

Things changed after Mao's death in 1976. A power struggle erupted until Deng Xiaoping emerged as the new leader of the PRC in 1980. While this new rule killed some of China's missile development activities, it did benefit at least one program. The Long March rocket survived and was given the support of the country's new leader. This was China's first reliable and successful rocket with positive return. In 1985, China began a commercial launch program that has sent over thirty European and Asian satellites in orbit in the last twenty-six years.

China's manned program got a second start in 1986 but manned flight was still far in the future since the technology hadn't caught up. Not until a decade later in 1996 was the first Long March rocket tested. It failed and crashed 22 seconds after launch.

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But soon China's luck began to change. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the PRC's foundation, the CNSA successfully launched the unmanned Shenzhou 1. Shenzhou was to be China's manned spacecraft, and this first flight was a milestone for the nation. Manned flights weren't far behind. On October 15, 2003, Yang Limei became the first taikonaut in orbit on Shenzhou 5 with two manned missions following in 2005 and 2008.

With Tiangong 1 – which means 'Heavenly Palace' – China is stepping up its presence in space. It launched this morning (for the US) on the Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Centre.

The spacecraft is a prototype the CNSA will use to test and perfect the technology and capabilities needed to build an orbital space laboratory. The mission will include some medical and engineering experiments, but the central goal is to test the docking capability of this prototype in anticipation of a taikonauts arrival at the real thing. Getting Tiangong 1 in orbit is the first step; three unmanned Shenzhou (the manned spacecraft) missions will follow, demonstrating docking with the space lab in orbit.

Docking in space, especially remote docking, is no small feat—NASA dedicated the Gemini program almost entirely to studying and perfecting orbital rendezvous and docking. If the Tiangong/Shenzhou dockings are successful, this would be a huge step in China's space capabilities. This would not only ensure China's strong foothold in space, it would also bring the CNSA one step closer to its goal of a fully assembled, operational, and manned space lab by 2020.

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But that's not where China's goals end. The country has also set its sights on the Moon and Mars with manned missions up for discussion sometime after 2020. These latter goals seem to get a lot of attention, particularly as a Chinese success on either front would solidify America's place as second in technological dominance in space, which begs the question: What does China's success in space mean, if anything, for NASA?

It could go two ways. Either China will become an ally like modern Russia, or it could become an adversary like the former Soviet Union.

A Google search for 'Chinese Space Program' turns up multiple articles suggesting the US and China are heading for a space race of their own since Chinese advances will threaten US supremacy in space. Interestingly, there are some parallels between China and the Soviet Union. China's Shenzhou 1 parallels the Soviet's attempt to launch Sputnik 2 to coincide with the celebrations commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution. The Chinese government covered up an imperfect landing to present a flawless flight to the world, much like the Soviet Union did for years. Some stories are still not fully uncovered.

But China isn't really a threat yet, at least not enough of one that NASA would enter into another space race. CNSA's track record must be weighed against NASA's: China has launched a grand total of three manned missions, while NASA has launched somewhere near the 200 mark. NASA has been to the Moon, developed space stations, space labs, sent probes to multiple planets and moons, and continues to make orbital observations of the universe. This isn't an easy organization to best. While China does have some impressive technologies under its belt (and no one will doubt its ingenuity and talent to make bold advances in space), the country doesn't have the momentum of NASA.

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The prospect of a Chinese manned mission to the Moon is often cited as cause for alarm. But could a Chinese lunar program really spark NASA's drive to go back? Unlikely. NASA's been to the Moon and it got there first. America has little to gain from a repeat Apollo just to prove to another country that it has the technology to undertake such a program.

Aside from the undesirable prospect of returning to an old stomping ground, NASA is unlikely to enter into any space competition in the current climate. Even if China announced it was going to Mars (more than just an undefined long range plan, that is), NASA is unlikely to try and get there first. NASA just doesn't have the funding for a space race, nor is it likely to ever enjoy the Apollo-era budgetary freedom.

That's one thing China has available to its space program that NASA doesn't: money. While most of the world is dealing with a recession, China is dealing with an economy that's only slightly less booming. So, could money drive NASA to join forces with China in space? Possibly, but it would have to be worth NASA's while, namely not a repetition of a program or mission it's already done on its own. The cost of going to Mars is so great it has been suggested by some that the only way to get there is if NASA, the Russian Space Agency, and the Chinese Space Program undertake a joint mission.

It's hard to say what China's entrance to space may mean for NASA, or the Russian Space Agency for that matter. It's certain China can't be ignored—it's only the third nation to independently put its men into orbit. But the CNSA is still fairly young in terms of successful missions. Whatever happens, I suspect it will be far enough in the future that a different political and economic climate will lead to an arrangement, a conflict, or a wonderful technological partnership we can't entirely foresee right now.

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Check out Vintage Space for more from Apollo-era historian, Amy Teitel.

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