June 26, 2013
The rocket carrying the Shenzhou 10 spacecraft blasts off June 11.
China's strategic focus on space is less about national pride than about the importance of space for both the military and economic progress of the country. The Chinese space program has developed rapidly over the past decade, illustrating the importance of the program to Beijing. Shenzhou 10, a 15-day mission that began June 11 and returned to Earth the morning of June 26 marked China's fifth manned mission to space. An increasing, ongoing presence in space is essential for civilian and military communications. Satellites' functions include navigation systems such as GPS, weather data and communications relays. But the significance of space goes beyond satellites. Technological advancement and development is required for countries such as China that want to participate in future resource development in space.
The Chinese space program officially began in 1958. Beijing launched its first earth-orbiting satellite in 1970, and while there were a series of launch failures in the 1990s, China carried out its first manned mission -- Shenzhou 5, which put a man in orbit -- in 2003. More manned missions would follow in 2005, 2008 and 2012. A major uptick in activity began in 2010, when China successfully completed 15 unmanned launches, including a lunar orbiting probe. Nineteen more launches would follow in 2011 and 2012. China is now one of only two countries -- Russia being the other -- actively putting people into space and plans to land an unmanned craft on the moon in late 2013.
The latest mission, Shenzhou 10, was launched as part of the testing process for docking capabilities with Tiangong 1, the small space module that is part of the program that will eventually culminate in China's own full-sized space station, planned for the 2020s. The mission, which reached completion June 26, also set out to advance flying abilities; demonstrate adaptability and efficiency while completing objectives on the complex; and test coordination of various systems.
Benefits of Space Exploration
Continued advancements in space-related technology will enable China to compete on the commercial and military fronts as more activity becomes dependent on space-based infrastructure. Prior to satellite communications, surveillance and detection abilities and communication were limited by line of sight and by the atmosphere, which can reflect signals and can distort and dilute their strength. Space-based infrastructure also enables more efficient communication over time.
Satellites are also essential to the coordination of a global military presence. Modern global warfare requires the acquisition of data and ability to move and utilize data in real time. This need is highly dependent on satellites, which provide the necessary sensors to "see" what is happening and the transmission capabilities to distribute this data.
However, the defense of satellites remains difficult. In addition to anti-satellite missiles, it is also possible to blind and jam satellites. Given the imbalance between the United States and the nearest competitors when it comes to space-based technologies (and reliance on these technologies), the disabling or destruction of U.S. satellites would be a bigger blow than a similar retaliatory response. But as China becomes more reliant on satellites for communications, military or otherwise, it is less likely to interfere with U.S. satellites for fear of retaliation (and vice versa), an effect similar to the nuclear standoff in the Cold War.
The Future of Space Exploration
While the current motivation for an increased space presence is satellite technology, continued progress in space is vital for future strategy as well. Resource acquisition will likely be a priority for future space exploration. The United States, Russia and Europe are all continuing efforts to expand space activity (though the United States is increasingly looking toward the private sector for further space development). Beijing cannot afford to be left behind in the ongoing pursuit to establish a greater presence in space. As the world's most populous country, China will continually have to seek out new resources in order to support and sustain itself. Space cannot be ignored as a potential, critical future source.
For example, asteroid mining may seem farfetched, but it could be a real possibility in the coming decades. NASA's strategy that seeks to find, capture and explore asteroids that may threaten Earth is currently competing for room in the budget with, among other things, exploration of Mars and lunar missions. There are also a few private asteroid-mining companies seeking to develop the necessary technology. There are likely many overlaps between the technology necessary to capture or divert an asteroid and that needed to exploit an asteroid for its resources.
Asteroids are a potential source of many substances, including nickel, iron and even water -- essential starting materials for constructing infrastructure in space or on the moon. The ability to extract resources in space could be instrumental in making space-based construction economical. Currently, lifting costs (the cost to get a material into space) are a limiting factor in the economics of space development.
While the returns on programs aimed at the future development of space are limited at the moment, the infrastructure, once built, can take several forms, including possible bases or colonies on the moon and Mars. Once space-based construction does become economically viable, only the countries that have established programs and research will able to take advantage of the new frontier. Much like the naval powers of history were able to colonize on other continents, it will be the space powers that will have the advantage on the moon or Mars.
As these pursuits move forward, it is important to remember that throughout history, research done to advance space exploration has found a way into everyday life, from something as simple as Velcro to advanced composite materials that can withstand immense heat. Research currently targeted for space also has the potential to improve earth-based technologies. Ongoing development in space has already had tangible benefits, including increased cellphone coverage (and ease of international calls), improved weather and GPS coverage and improved mapping technology.
While the path of ongoing development of space is unknown, the earlier a country enters this new space race, the better. Even so, establishing a strategic presence in space requires an ongoing and active development of space programs. It is for this reason that China, while starting later than the United States and Russia, is quickly and urgently expanding its technological capabilities in space.