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China Pushes for Primacy in Space

  • Published
  • By Trefor Moss

For the original article by Trefor Moss in The Wall Street Journal: China Pushes for Primacy in Space

SHANGHAI—China is poised to realize an ambitious mission to the far side of the moon, the most immediate of many planned milestones in its effort to challenge America’s half-century-long supremacy in space.

In a first for any country, the Chang’e-4 probe is set to touch down on the “dark side” of the moon on or around Jan. 3, according to state media, and dispatch a rover in a vast crater to explore the moon’s interior. While impressive in itself, the mission is a step toward bolder objectives: China plans to operate a manned lunar base by 2030 and lead the world into a new age of space exploration.

For its part, the U.S. is reviving its manned space program after letting it languish in favor of unmanned exploration. A space-policy directive signed in December 2017 by President Trump outlined plans for manned missions to the moon and Mars and started preparations for a new space force to counter the Chinese military’s development of space weapons. These moves came after experts testified at a House Subcommittee on Space hearing in 2016 entitled “Are we losing the space race to China?” that the U.S. risked being eclipsed in the field. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget, set at $21.5 billion in 2019, is still nearly double that of its Chinese counterpart.

Already rivals on Earth, the U.S. and China are now the main contenders in a race to determine “who will be in a position to obtain the vast resources in space, secure the routes of trade and write the rules of space commerce,” said Namrata Goswami, an expert on China’s space program at Auburn University Futures Lab in Alabama.

China, she added, “is best placed to win,” thanks to a methodical program that has mapped out clearly defined objectives decades into the future.


A late entrant to the space race, China conducted its first manned space flight in 2003, 42 years after the Soviet Union and the U.S. first achieved the feat.

Since then, Chinese leaders have portrayed the conquest of space as an essential marker in the nation’s rise and backed that ambition with ready financing. China National Space Administration is the world’s best-funded space agency after NASA, and its development of military capabilities such as antisatellite weapons and its busy schedule of missions have jolted the U.S.

This “is a competition with high strategic stakes,” said Dean Cheng, an expert on China’s space capabilities at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

While space matters again to American policy makers, the U.S. effort has lost its focus, having been underfunded since the Reagan era, according to Mr. Cheng. The U.S. has had to rely on other countries to send American astronauts into space since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Timetables to put astronauts on the moon by 2023 and on Mars by 2033 look difficult to achieve, some analysts said, and could easily fall victim to shifting political priorities.

China has seen its own setbacks. A crash in 2017 of the country’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Long March 5, on its maiden flight set the space program back around two years, according to changes to mission schedules.

Even so, Chinese spending has been better targeted over a long period, with clear goals, achievable timelines and unwavering top-level backing, the analysts said. The U.S., by contrast, earlier funded a program to return astronauts to the moon and then canceled it in 2010.

“China sets long-term goals and meets them,” said Auburn’s Ms. Goswami. “They see the moon as a vast energy resource for sustainable development. Their plan is to industrialize the moon.”

In 2018, China sent more rockets into orbit than any other country for the first time: 36, compared with the U.S.’s 30. Beyond the current moon mission, China is scheduled to deploy a space station by 2022 and set up mankind’s first permanent lunar base eight years later.

The Beidou satellite navigation system, comprising 35 location satellites, is due to go fully online in 2020, becoming a genuine rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System, which currently has 31 operational satellites.

President Xi Jinping, in a nationally broadcast call to Chinese astronauts aboard the country’s first orbital space lab in 2013, portrayed space exploration as “part of the dream to make China stronger.” Since then, senior officials at China’s space agency have likened the race for space to China’s tussle to claim disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.

“The universe is like the ocean: the moon is like the Diaoyu Islands and Mars is like Scarborough Shoal,” Ye Peijian, head of China’s moon missions, said in a 2017 interview with state TV, using China’s names for contested territories in the South China Sea. “We will be blamed by our descendants if we don’t go there…and others get there before us.”

An early harvest of China’s long-range planning should be evident in coming weeks with the lunar mission. Operating on the moon’s far side is a feat in itself since direct communications with Earth aren’t possible. In June, China placed a relay satellite 50,000 miles beyond the moon to enable communication with the lunar rover.

The rover will comb the lunar surface’s far side, scraping up samples. In a year’s time, another mission, Chang’e-5, will retrieve samples and return them to Earth. 

Some Chinese scientists see the moon’s abundant supplies of helium-3, a nonradioactive isotope, as a potential source of nuclear-fusion energy.

By its timetable, the Chinese space agency will have a fully operational space station in orbit in 2022. Once the U.S.-led international space station retires in the mid-2020s, China’s space station will be the only such platform and Beijing will have an opportunity to lead global teams in conducting scientific research on board the station.

Whether the U.S.—which blocked China from accessing the ISS—will be welcome to take part is unclear. China’s space agency didn’t respond to questions about that. A government policy paper on space issued in 2016 includes the space station as a possible area of international cooperation.

—Liu Lekai in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Trefor Moss at Trefor.Moss@wsj.com

Appeared in the December 31, 2018, print edition as 'China Pushes For Primacy in The Space Race.'