Readers would be hard pressed to find a more blasé attitude towards China’s space program than the current “nothing-to-be-alarmed-about-here-folks” op-ed column by John Kelly recently published in Florida Today. In his piece, Kelly dismisses any possible concern that China’s development of new space faring capability has any relevance to American interests. In what he calls “politically driven hysteria,” he outlines the supposed myriad ways in which China lags behind the USA and the rest of the world, touting their space station as “one-tenth the size” of the US Skylab station of the 1970s. Since when does size trump utility in space assets?
Kelly accuses those whom he characterizes as “preying on the average voter’s lack of geopolitical knowledge” of “jawboning,” while – jawboning. He’s convinced (and feels the need to convince his readers) that the Chinese space program is simply a national pride-driven, PR exercise, a pathetic re-hash of the “space race” era (and America must resist the temptation to join in such a “race”). Perhaps. But who recently conducted anti-satellite warfare tests in low Earth orbit, leaving behind a cloud of space debris that will take years to decay and dissipate? Hint: it wasn’t the USA or any of its space partners.
It appears Kelly wants us to reach out and cooperate with the Chinese in space, even though they have not shown any particular desire for such a path. Kelly, the geopolitical sophisticate, seems to think that we should woo China with promises of space cooperation, like we won the hearts of the Russians. Yes, the Soviets were our one-time rivals, but I seem to recall that aside from one public relations “détente” mission in the 1970s (Apollo-Soyuz), real cooperation with Russia in space began after the fall of communism there in the early 1990s. At that time we were no longer in global competition with Russia and the rapid easing of tensions and encouragement of good relations was pressing. Such is not true now for China; in fact, geopolitical competition and tension between China and the U.S. is increasing, especially in the South Pacific region. China may turn out to be an ally in the long run but such an outcome at this time is by no means obvious.
China’s approach to space is focused on systematically pursuing a step-by-step program to gradually and continuously extend their reach and capabilities in space. It won’t take “multiple decades” for the Chinese to overtake our stalled U.S. space program and gain a strong (if not an upper) hand in space development. Leading from behind never works as it comes from diminished authority, thus lacking weight or persuasion. I have noted before that many of the allegedly “sophisticated observers” in the space commentariat seem intent on pooh-poohing Chinese space ambitions. In the absence of a large amount of hard data on China’s program (it is run by the military and very secretive) speculation abounds, but ignoring potential peril or purposefully denying its existence (and ascribing questionable motives to those who are concerned by our complacency) is the height of irresponsibility. The clear facts are these: China is a nascent space power, but they appear to be determined and resourceful. They are approaching the development of a space faring capability logically and incrementally. China’s technical and architectural choices appear sound.
What might be China’s ultimate ambitions in space? They have clearly zeroed in on the development of space power, which despite sounding “sinister,” is merely the projection of power in space to serve national interests. This power can take many forms, but in effect, it’s the ability to protect one’s own assets and capabilities and to deny an adversary theirs. Satellites are astonishingly delicate and vulnerable. They can be disabled easily with small, cheap spacecraft designed to intercept and impact them or blind their sensors with laser beams. In a matter of a few minutes, a small interceptor can turn a billion-dollar surveillance satellite into a useless piece of space junk. It is laughable and dangerous to presume that emerging space powers don’t think in these terms. Kelly attributes others’ concerns as a ploy to get money for NASA and/or the military. He claims to find their program “interesting to watch,” attributing their success to a “stable budget” and their use of the hard-earned expertise of previous space faring nations.
Many people think of war in space as science fiction, but during some future global crisis there is no reason to imagine that space would not be one of the theaters of operations in addition to land, sea and air. We depend on critical space assets for many different tasks, including surveillance, communications, GPS for troop and fleet movements and UAV guidance, weather prediction – most all facets of modern life – a dependency that most take for granted. If all our space-based functions were threatened, blocked by an unfriendly power, we have few effective options to respond to this vulnerability.
In addition to the operational aspects of the Chinese space effort, there is a technological dimension as well. China is using its space program to incentivize and bootstrap a robust technical industrial base. The manufacturing and human intellectual capital needed to conduct spaceflight has critical national security implications. Nations that have both a strong economy and a high-technology base hold a distinct edge in preserving peace or defending themselves if war ever comes. However, since the end of the Cold War, we have systematically dismantled the high-technology aerospace industrial base that helped us to win that struggle. Unlike us, the Chinese see a vigorous space program as a means to develop new technical capabilities that will have much wider applications than space. They understand that this is a good thing; we used to.
China has already sent two missions to orbit the Moon. They plan to send a third mission this year to soft-land on the lunar surface. Clearly, the Moon is part of their long-range strategic vision. Experts assure us the Chinese are only interested in the Moon to land a man there (eventually – not in the near future, so don’t worry and get into a pointless “race”), plant the Chinese flag, say “me too” and then come back home basking in glory. It apparently never occurs to these geniuses that others might see long-range value to the Moon – perhaps to use its resources and location to create a permanent cislunar presence, where all the world’s space assets reside.
Tut-tut – what a silly idea! Don’t you realize that everybody looks at the space program the same way – as a bread and circuses amusement for their citizens, designed to bring “excitement” (those precious web hits) with an ever bigger and ever more spectacular series of space “firsts?” Aren’t we told that there’s no practical value to going to the Moon? There’s no “gold” there! Certainly we would have gone back if there had been – or at least, we would be following the same path as China.
Now, let’s get back to those more important discussion topics of New Space – things like one-way trips to Mars, crowd-source funding and suborbital junkets.