In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump said that the United States stands “ready to unlock the mysteries of space,” but given that he has yet to outline his NASA policy, it may be months before the country learns what that means. Meanwhile, China is moving boldly ahead with its own space-exploration efforts, and with little ambiguity about its mission. The country recently announced it would conduct about 30 launches this year. The target, if met, would be a record for China. The country conducted 21 successful orbital-launch missions in 2016, and 19 the year before that. The output puts China in a close second behind the United States, which saw 22 successful launches, and ahead of Russia, which conducted 16.
And there’s plenty more to come, according to a recent report from the China National Space Administration (CNSA), a quinquennial document that lays out the country’s space goals for the next five years. The report, released late last month, said CNSA will launch in 2017 its first-ever cargo spacecraft, headed for the space laboratory launched last year. In 2018, CNSA aims to land a rover to the far side of the moon, a first for humankind. And in 2020, it plans to land a rover on Mars, a feat that has been attempted by Russia and other European nations, but only successfully accomplished by the United States.
The report demonstrates the growing capabilities of a burgeoning space program, one that’s often overlooked in a domain of other spacefaring nations, particularly the United States. China’s military-run space program began to take shape in the mid-1950s, at the start of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Its efforts would be repeatedly derailed by political turmoil inside the country. Experts say the program is a decade or so behind the leading spacefaring nations, but it’s no rookie. China is only the third country to put its own astronauts into space, and, with Americans launching to space on Russian rockets, it’s currently only one of two that retains that capacity.
China first sent an astronaut into space in 2003. Yang Liwei, a former fighter pilot, orbited the Earth for 21 hours inside a Shenzhou spacecraft, launched by one of the Long March rockets. The pace of exploration quickened from there. In 2007, a Long March rocket sent Chang’e-1, an uncrewed orbiter, for a 15-month rendezvous around the moon. In 2011, CNSA launched Tiangong-1, the first component for a prototype orbital laboratory like the International Space Station. A Shenzhou spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang, successfully docked with Tiangong-1 a year later. China returned to the moon in 2013, landing the country’s first lunar rover. CNSA lost control over its would-be space station in 2016, but a successor, Tiangong-2, launched not long after. In November, two astronauts spent 30 days aboard Tiangong-2, China’s longest crewed mission, to study how to live and work in microgravity. The Americans and the Russians have spent years learning about surviving in orbit on the ISS, but for the Chinese, this was pioneering work.
Space exploration has always been as much a quest for geopolitical gain as it has for scientific discovery. The Americans and the Russians carried out launch after launch in the middle of the century not, first and foremost, for the sake of science, but in the name of national identity. China’s civilian and military space programs—and their motivations—are inextricably linked. Some analysts say it can be easy to overstate the influence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on space activities, and point out that the scientists and engineers on the civilian side are like scientists and engineers at NASA. But there is no solid delineation between the two. China’s ambitions in space are as strategic as the Vostok and Apollo programs of the 1960s.
Such is the two-side nature of space exploration: A rocket can launch a capsule to the moon—or a bomb toward an enemy.
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