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China’s Space Ambitions

By Taylor Marvin

This video from the Chinese government has been making the rounds for a few days, and if you haven’t see it it’s worth a watch:

If you didn’t notice, the stirring orchestral score in the background is “America the Beautiful”. Opinions seem to be split on how this happened: either it’s a hilarious oversight on the part of whatever bureaucrat approved this animation, or it’s a not-so-subtle message to an indebted America in the process of downsizing its manned space program. I’d lean towards the former explanation, but both are a possibility.

If this is a message, it’s also worth noting that it’s a bit of a toothless one. While Chinese technological and logistical capabilities are advancing in leaps and bounds, it’s important to remember that the Tiangong-1 — romantically, “heavenly palace” — space station featured in the video is roughly equivalent to the Skylab program the US flew in the mid 1970s. Unlike the Soviet/Russian Mir station or today’s multinational ISS, the Tiangong 1 is a single capsule, rather than a larger station assembled in orbit. While the Tiangong 1 is officially intended to serve as a precursor to a future larger and more complex station, the differences in  logistical and technological capabilities required for a single unit and complex ISS-type station are extremely large, and it isn’t clear when China will be able to acquire these capabilities.

For example, the Chinese rocket with the highest current LEO payload capability, the Long March 3B, is capable of delivering 12,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit. For comparison, the primary US research module aboard ISS, Destiny, has a mass of 14,520 kg. A heavy-lift Long March vehicle with a LEO payload capability of 25,000 is currently in development, and scheduled to enter service sometime after 2014. While the Long March 5’s projected payload capabilities are impressive, it’s comparable to the retired Space Shuttle and current Delta IV launch systems’ capabilities, and far below the forecasted 70,000 kg LEO payload of the proposed SLS Space Shuttle successor (though of course the Long March 5 is close to entering service, and the SLS is still a paper project likely over a decade away from a manned launch). This isn’t to say that the Chinese won’t be able to accomplish their ambitious goals in space, but to emphasis that ambitious space programs are very difficult to actually accomplish. Space programs are expensive, even for the Chinese, and the Chinese government experiences the same internal competition for resources as everyone else. Though international prestige is clearly an important motivation for the PRC leadership, space programs around the world have along history of being out-competed by other priorities. There are good reasons to be concerned about the increasingly assertive Chinese government, but it’s also worth taking their ambitious goals with a grain of salt.

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