Written by Joan Johnson-Freese.

Space activity, including everything from launch, to orbital operations, servicing and exploration– and especially human spaceflight– is difficult, risky and expensive. If it were not more countries would be claiming bragging rights. But it is, and so while most countries are users of space-provided information, only a few can claim major space-player status. China certainly is among those countries which can legitimately claim to be a major space-player. Some would argue that it has or soon will overtake the United States as the leader in space. China gambled on space strategy including human spaceflight that draws heavily from the U.S./NASA playbook, but with a distinctly Chinese twist. That gamble has paid off.

America’s space program as seen through NASA had an unnatural birth. Though rightly regarded as a civilian agency, NASA’s 1958 inception was prompted by the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, and its initially generous funding from Congress was intended to produce a Cold War, beat-the-Soviets response to Sputnik. While NASA programs and missions focused on exploration, programmatic goals were broader and techno-nationalistic, relating to leadership and geopolitics. President John F. Kennedy announced the Apollo Program in 1961 with the national goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s. The United States gloriously achieved that goal in 1969, demonstrating American exceptionalism in the best sense of the word, becoming the unqualified global leader in space. From the Apollo Program, the United States reaped rewards in terms of prestige, prestige that translated into geostrategic influence, economic benefits from being a high technology leader, an unprecedented number of students interested in science and engineering fields, and military benefits because almost all space technology is dual use, meaning having both civil and military applications. China read the Apollo playbook and has been able to achieve much the same broad ends, though through different means.

In 1969 the Cultural Revolution that had decimated a large portion of its scientific and technical communities, indeed its educated class in general, was just ending in China.  China had a nascent space program though, initiated in 1958- again as a response to Sputnik- with the goals of developing a sounding rocket based on a reverse engineered Soviet R-2 missile, launching a small satellite into orbit, and then building a larger satellites. Besides Soviet technology, China was also fortunate to have rocket scientist Qian Xuesen, trained in the United States at MIT and CalTech and previously employed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to direct Chinese space efforts. Qian had been recently deported from the United States after being accused of being a communist during the red scare.

Economics, the time it took to rebuild the Chinese scientific and technical communities, and international and domestic politics resulted in Chinese space efforts characterized by fits and starts in the 1960’s-1980’s. In 1992 though, China approved Project 921, a human spaceflight program that would ultimately challenge American leadership in space. Project 921 is a three phase program to: (1) demonstrate the ability to launch humans into space; (2) demonstrate advanced spaceflight capabilities, including docking and extra-vehicular activities (space walks) and space station technology; and (3) culminate with a large space station in orbit. It later approved Project 921-2, the Tiangong space laboratory/technology demonstrator program that is a key part of part 2 of the 3 part Chinese human spaceflight effort. In 2014, China is well into phase 2.  Add to that the Chang’s robotic lunar exploration program and the development of a new heavy lift vehicle, the Long March 5, and China is developing all the building blocks for a human spaceflight program to the Moon.

While the United States set the Moon as its destination and successfully went and returned within a decade, China has not rigidly tied itself to such a timetable. Further, NASA carried out numerous flights during precursor Mercury, Gemini and eventually Apollo missions, launching frequently, achieving incremental steps forward with each flight. China, on the other hand, launches far less frequently– once every two years for a Shenzhou, human spaceflight, launch– but with bigger steps forward with each flight. NASA was almost immediately committed to a human spaceflight lunar mission, while China has yet to make that commitment. It appears to be waiting until all the necessary technologies have been successfully tested. Meanwhile, however, each launch generates global interest and media coverage, coverage that has served China well.

China has reaped multiple paybacks from its exploration and human spaceflight activities. First and foremost, it has created the perception that China is not only the regional space leader, but perhaps the global space leader as well, if only through consistent activity. The U.S. space program is by no means moribund, but its leadership status, at least the perception of leadership, has clearly declined. A 2013 poll indicates almost half of Americans think the United States is losing leadership in space. Internationally, articles like that run in 2013 by Germany’s Der Spiegel, suggesting that because China is the “rising power” in space Europe is considering redirecting its space partnership alliances from the U.S. to China, are indicative of a shift in perception.

Chinese prestige from its space activities, prestige translating into geostrategic influence, has forced India to engage and challenge China’s space leadership. On September 24, 2014 India became the first Asian country to successfully orbit a spacecraft around Mars mission, the first country ever to do so on its first attempt, and did so with a low cost budget. All of those points were heavily played in the considerable media coverage given the event. Coverage of the scientific aspects of India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), was almost secondary. Media use of words like “beat” – indicating an Asian space race – and “first try” – were likely welcomed by the Indian government. China has largely ignored the Indian challenge, as though too insignificant to consider.

China has also reaped other benefits from space. Global perceptions of Chinese manufacturing capabilities have grown consequent to its space achievements, beyond the previous perception of being able to produce knock-off designer clothes and footwear. The number of Chinese students interested in science and manufacturing fields has increased to the extent that new schools are opening. The military benefits from dual-use space technology being developed, as well as from the significant improvement in computational capabilities and associated skills required by an ambitious space program.

China recognized the multiple benefits of human spaceflight and exploration activity and was willing to commit to a long term effort to achieve them. That expensive, risky and costly gamble has paid off.

 Joan Johnson-Freese is a Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval War College. Image credit: CC by Pierre Pouliquin/Flickr