Does China Matter?

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

China recently launched a crew to their small space station. The Shenzhou 10 spacecraft, with three astronauts (or taikonauts, as some refer to them) aboard, docked to the Tiangong 1 space lab for a 12-day visit. This would be the second crew to visit this lab, the first having occurred in June 2012. This new mission will be the fifth crewed flight for the Chinese and may include more EVAs, and included another Chinese female space traveler.

This mission demonstrates that China is making steady progress in their manned space capabilities. But will this demonstration have any effect on American space policy or motivations? I think there may be a tiny impact but regarding the big picture, what China does won’t change what the US does.

The American space program is primarily driven by politics and right now the politics is all about budgets. NASA and space exploration is not a big priority compared to everything else the government has to fund, so unless the Chinese program presents some imminent threat to US space interests our response will be a big yawn. Putting a few astronauts/taikonauts up on a small space lab is equivalent to what the US and the Soviets did almost 40 years ago. It’s interesting but no one really cares.

Some folks think (wish for?) that if the Chinese put their people on the Moon that it might spark another space race and motivate the US to return to the Moon. One needs to look at the way the Chinese have been going about their space business. It has been slow and methodical. They are not in a race. They are setting their own pace. This mission is their fifth manned flight in ten years. That is not exactly a crash program. They are planning a larger space station, something on the scale of the Russian Mir. But according the Chinese themselves, that is not even planned for launch until 2020. That is a slow, steady program. There has been talk about a lunar mission but they have a long way to go before they can send a crew to the moon. They have not even put an unmanned craft on the lunar surface (an attempt is planned for this fall), nor done a sample return mission, nor demonstrated that their Shenzhou capsule can survive reentry at the interplanetary velocity one would have with a lunar mission.

Perhaps the biggest impact of this mission is that it will remind US policy makers that while we continue to go around in circles, changing course constantly with our manned space goals, as nebulous as they are, other countries will continue to plow ahead and make progress. If we sit still, others will move on, and possibly move ahead. I don’t see it as a big motivator, more of a reminder.

The other possible angle is that at some point we will need to open up the International Space Station to the Chinese. Other than politics (is there anything other than politics?), there is no good reason to exclude the very capable Chinese from future space missions. This could include extended operations of the ISS or missions to the moon, asteroids, or Mars. These deep space missions will be very expensive and are more likely to occur (and occur sooner) if we have more international participants. The current mission is demonstrating that the Chinese have nearly equivalent space capabilities as the other ISS partners. They are going to be part of the planet’s future in space whether we like it or not, so why not include them now?

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