China’s Space Program Eyes the Moon, Mars, Venus … and Earth

The final shuttle launch last week has brought renewed attention to the different trajectories of China and America’s space programs. From The Associated Press:

China is still far behind the U.S. in space technology and experience, but what it doesn’t lack is a plan or financial resources. While U.S. programs can fall victim to budgetary worries or a change of government, rapidly growing China appears to have no such constraints.

“One of the biggest advantages of their system is that they have five-year plans so they can develop well ahead,” said Peter Bond, consultant editor for Jane’s Space Systems and Industry. “They are taking a step-by-step approach, taking their time and gradually improving their capabilities. They are putting all the pieces together for a very capable, advanced space industry.” […]

China’s space station is slated to open around 2020, the same year the International Space Station is scheduled to close. If the U.S. and its partners don’t come up with a replacement, China could have the only permanent human presence in the sky ….

Some elements of China’s program, notably the firing of a ground-based missile into one of its dead satellites four years ago, have alarmed American officials and others who say such moves could set off a race to militarize space. That the program is run by the military has made the U.S. reluctant to cooperate with China in space, even though the latter insists its program is purely for peaceful ends.

The Financial Times notes that, according to a new report from the World Security Institute, the PLA’s satellite surveillance capabilities are rapidly catching up with those of the US:

“Starting from almost no live surveillance capability 10 years ago, today the PLA has likely equalled the US’s ability to observe targets from space for some real-time operations,” two of the institute’s China researchers, Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin, write in the Journal of Strategic Studies.

China warned the US last month not to become involved in its dispute with Vietnam over the South China Sea. “[China’s] strategic priority is to keep the US out of its backyard,” Mr Durnin told the Financial Times, adding that the satellite technology needed for achieving that goal is now in place.

When China tested missiles near Taiwan in 1996, the US deployed two aircraft carriers to nearby waters. The PLA’s inability to locate the ships was a source of great embarrassment that helped spur China’s satellite programme.

“The United States has always felt that if there was a crisis in Taiwan, we could get our naval forces there before China could act and before they would know we were there. This basically takes that off the table,” said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the US Naval War College in Rhode Island.