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Beijing’s Clumsy Steps into Space
Summary:The pioneering astronauts that China last week welcomed back to earth are part of a multi-billion yuan program that is close to the military’s heart. Sadly for them, it seems that private investors may hold the key to space.

By Wang Xiaoxia (
Observer, page 45
Issue No. 574, June 18, 2012
Translated by Li Meng
Original article: [Chinese]

With the return to earth of the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft on Friday, China took a step towards adding a second habitable space station to the earth’s orbit, rivaling the International Space Station.

The three astronauts who came to earth in Inner Mongolia were the first from their country to achieve a docking mission – their craft was secured alongside the experimental Tiangong 1 some 340 kilometers above the earth – and one of the three, Liu Yang, was the first Chinese woman in space.

China's manned space program took off at the end of 1980s and the decision makers outlined three steps for the program in 1992. The successful launch of Shenzhou 9 was a key task in the second of those steps – China wants to have a 20-ton space station by 2020.

However, aerospace technology isn’t just used for civil ends; it also has direct military applications. The progress of the Shenzhou project may not be a threat to America's status as a giant space power, but China’s hidden ambitions in this field are a greater concern for the U.S. than the J-20 stealth fighter or the Varyag aircraft carrier.

China's space projects, including those for civil use, have enhanced its ability to destroy or paralyze an opponent's space systems and promoted the development of China's conventional military capabilities. China's space activities pose the biggest challenge to America’s national security and even to its economic interests.

Space power was crucial to America's achievement of overwhelming military superiority. The country’s army, navy and air force rely on aerospace technologies. Especially in the areas of military communications, navigation, detection and early warning systems, aerospace technologies have given the U.S. a huge advantage and enabled its troops to employ tactics that had previously been all but impossible. The more they benefit from the use of aeronautics and space exploration, the more dependent they become on those technologies.

Some Americans even argue that the strength of the economy is linked to space exploration. Americans’ lives are inseparable from all kinds of satellite-based functions and services. China's rise as a strong competitor in space would naturally be perceived as an attempt to rival the superpower and undermine its military leadership. Hearing that China’s scientists were also researching anti-satellite technology left the Americans ill at ease.

George W. Bush’s grand space program ran aground when President Obama took office and the financial crisis bit into spending plans. Obama then changed course and sought to strengthen the U.S. space defense system by expanding the space economy.

After significant adjustments to its aerospace strategy, Obama shut down the costly manned space flight program and loosened the grip of a handful of monopolies in the aerospace industry. His administration encouraged private entrepreneurship in aerospace. NASA awarded multimillion-dollar contracts to private firms under the Space Act Agreement, as it sought to nurture private companies in commercial cargo and crew transportation.

The space economy is almost certain to emerge as a new economic growth point. It's estimated that the aerospace technologies for civil and military use have attracted investment of more than $500 billion. Between 2009 and 2018, 1,185 satellites will have been built and launched worldwide, up 50 percent from the previous ten years.

Looking forward, the development of U.S. military and aerospace will no doubt be tied to a fierce battle of business and commercial interests. Opening the market up to competition will only make the space war more intense and crueler.

In the lead-up to China‘s manned space rendezvous, a U.S. space transport company, Space X, successfully attached its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station - the spacecraft research and development costs weren’t borne by the U.S. government or exorbitant contractors, but by a privately-owned company established in 2002.

By contrast, what proportion of the expensive technology used in the Shenzhou 9 project came from China's state-controlled aerospace enterprises? How much of it was borrowed from Russia? It might be difficult to give a clear answer. Even though there are already a few private companies taking part in the project, most of them are limited to auxiliary equipment manufacturing and isolated from the core of the aerospace industry.

Assessed solely in terms of the marketization of the space sector and military-industrial complex, China has already been left behind.

In the U.S., each step in design, research and development and mass production of military products is completed through a collaboration of contractors, subcontractors and parts suppliers in the military industrial complex. Under this kind of cooperative system, U.S. defense and aerospace industries account for a relatively big share of the country's gross national product. The transformation of aerospace technologies into profitable business has generated two trillion dollars in the U.S., whereas China's massive investment in aerospace contributed less than 1 percent of national income.

Although national defense and aerospace technology involve national security and secrecy, less than 20 percent of the technologies are used purely for military purpose and dual civil/military use technologies have become the norm in the west.

In this context, the question of how China ought to proceed with the commercial transformation of its military and aerospace industry is not simply an economic proposition, it’s also fundamental to the country’s status in space.

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