The launch of the Shenzhou 11 spacecraft in western China last month marked another great leap forward for the nation’s space program and its ambition to send manned missions to the moon and, eventually, Mars. Yet more than national prestige is at stake: China is counting on its space program to pay huge economic dividends.Source
China is NASA’s biggest rival in space exploration with plans to land “taikonauts” on the moon by 2036 and Mars thereafter. Along the way, President Xi Jinping hopes the space missions will spawn a wave of Chinese innovation in robotics, aviation and artificial intelligence, among other leading 21st-century technologies.
China’s space program is generally shrouded in secrecy, yet Xi’s government is now reviewing a proposal by top researchers to triple investments into scientific missions, according to Wu Ji, director-general of the National Space Science Center. The hope is that advancements made while building new telescopes, monitoring Earth’s water cycles and improving satellite navigation will revive state-owned enterprises and inspire the startup of private ones.
China’s ongoing five-year plan strives to “make original achievements” in fundamental sciences and “lead the development of cutting-edge space technology.” A central economic strategy calls for 70 percent of key technology components—such as semiconductors and software—to be produced domestically by 2025.
To get there, Wu and dozens of researchers asked the central government to boost investment into space science from the 4.7 billion yuan ($695 million) spent in 2011-2015 to at least 15.6 billion yuan in 2026-2030.
The precise extent of China’s space spending isn’t known, but what’s clear is that some U.S.-based analysts are concerned that China is hitting the accelerator as NASA hits the brakes. NASA ended the space shuttle, abandoned plans to return to the moon and is only committed to the International Space Station until 2024.
China’s stated goals to build its own station, land on the dark side of the moon and put a rover on Mars—all by 2022—prompted U.S. congressmen to ask: “Are We Losing the Space Race to China?” The nation started manned missions in 2003 and launched two more taikonauts in Shenzhou 11.
“China’s more deliberate and comprehensive approach will open up opportunities for Beijing to derive important economic, political and diplomatic benefits from its space program,” Dennis Shea, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, told the committee Sept. 27.
Even though NASA already landed on the moon, giving China the chance to accomplish that while the U.S. focuses on manned flight to Mars in the 2030s may backfire, said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“China uses space to gain political advantage,” Lewis said. “While there are clearly activities related to science and research, the primary purpose for China is to demonstrate power.”
“China has leapfrogged other countries in terms of technology development over the past 15 years,” said Vincent Chan, a Hong Kong-based managing director of Credit Suisse. “The potentially disruptive implications of China’s innovative drive should not be underestimated.”
The nation also is developing the homegrown Beidou navigation network as an alternative to the U.S.-run Global Positioning System. China wants a constellation of 35 Beidou satellites covering the world by 2020, according to the nonprofit Colorado-based Space Foundation.
Beidou provides improved security against interference and interception for military users, and guides about 40,000 fishing boats in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and the vortex of international territorial disputes.
More than 30 countries use the Beidou system, according to the government.
“We are at the beginning,” Wu said. “But this is a great cause, and nothing should stop China from becoming a power in the space industry.”