U.S. Experts on China's Space Program Agree There Is No Race

U.S. Experts on China's Space Program Agree There Is No Race

China’s successful Shenzhou-9 mission seems to have stirred interest in what impact, if any, China’s space program should have on the U.S. space program.  Several experts on Chinese space activities have spoken at public meetings or published op-ed pieces in the past two weeks weighing in on the topic.   One issue on which they all agree is that there is no U.S.-China space race.

Some U.S. space program advocates have been attempting to reinvigorate NASA’s activities by trying to resurrect the U.S.-Soviet space race paradigm of the 1960s that shaped the Apollo program. 

At a Marshall Institute-TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council symposium on June 29, hours after Shenzhou-9 landed, Leslee Gilbert, Vice President, Van Scoyoc Associates, took the opposite view, pointing out that the American people do not seem to care about China’s human spaceflight program.   “China will have to do something new to get Americans’ attention,” she said, perhaps building a base on the Moon, but just going there would not be sufficient.  The former staff director for the House Science, Space and Technology committee argued that China is “not leading, but following.”   Noting that many people paint U.S.-China space relationships in an either-or framework — either racing or cooperating — she concludes neither is likely in the near future, especially with the strong opposition to cooperation voiced by Members of Congress like Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).   Gilbert’s major concern is that the American public lacks an “appetite for space” in general and “spurring a race with China won’t fix it.”   That interest “has to come from within.”

Kevin Pollpeter, Deputy Director, East Asia Program, Defense Group, Inc., gave China credit for “hitting on all cylinders” over the past ten years.  He described a broadly based space program encompassing civil and military objectives, although the Chinese space program is under the purview of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) where such a distinction is not obvious.  Still, “China is not out to eat our lunch — yet,” he said.  Although China conducted one more launch than the United States last year, he said, we launched more satellites and Chinese satellites have “shorter lifetimes and are less capable.” 

The Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng agreed with Gilbert and Pollpeter that there is no U.S.-China space race.  “If they are racing with anyone, it’s with Japan and India,” and it is “a marathon not a sprint,” he said.  That is not to say that the Chinese space program does not pose challenges to the United States, he added.  China’s successes in the Shenzhou program, for example, pose a strategic challenge by signalling to the rest of the world that China has sufficient technological confidence to take the risks associated with human spaceflight, he explained.  On an operational level, China has learned lessons from U.S. conflicts such as the Persian Gulf War that future conflicts will be fought under “modern informationalized conditions” and gathering information and quickly exploiting it is critical.  “Space is how you do that,” he argued.  The United States and China are “not racing, but staring at each other warily.”

At the symposium and in an op-ed in the Washington Times on July 4, Cheng went on to rue the fact that the United States does not trumpet its own successes, such as the Voyager spacecraft leaving the solar system or the X-37B landing after more than a year of automated flight.   “One thing we do badly is using space in a non-space context,” he told the audience.  He reiterated that position in his op-ed, stating that “NASA’s products are a de facto refutation of claims of American decline, and should be used as such.”  He also warned against space cooperation with China and, domestically, advocated more engagement with the commercial sector.

Cheng also spoke to the National Research Council’s Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction on June 25 along with Greg Kulacki from the Union of Concerned Scientists.   The two often clash on China space issues, but both agreed that there is no space race.  On that occasion, Cheng said “China is not racing the United States, it is building what it needs.”  

Kulacki sounded the same theme, that China “has been a follower, not a leader, in space,” adding that China “doesn’t have the confidence to be a leader” in this area.  He argued strongly in favor of U.S.-China space cooperation, however, calling current U.S. policy “uninformed, misguided and counterproductive.”

On the other hand, an individual who appears to have little expertise related to China’s space program or anyone else’s, argues that there is a space race and China is winning.   Douglas MacKinnon writes in the New York Times that “the humans who are now winning the space race come from the People’s Republic of China.”  MacKinnon says in the op-ed that he worked as a “consultant for NASA and the Space Shuttle team” after he left the government and has “always been a fan of humans in space.”  Apart from that, he was a press secretary to former Senator Bob Dole, a writer for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, worked at DOD, and now is a columnist and author.  Focusing more on China’s military space capabilities and objectives, his theme is that President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney should make American preeminence in space a campaign issue.  He asserts that early in his presidency Obama “contemplated combining the best of the space programs at the Pentagon and NASA to compete with the rapidly accelerating Chinese space program” and should “dust off those plans.”




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