2012 is the Chinese year of the Dragon, which is surely a good sign for SpaceX who will be launching their combined COTS 2/3 mission in March. All being well, this will see the first private spacecraft visit and supply the International Space Station.
But what of China and their space programme? Whilst they might not be the first country that springs to mind when thinking about space exploration, perhaps they should be. They are definitely ones to watch. I attended a talk at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London last week to hear Karl Bergquist, Administrator for International Relations Department at ESA, talk us through the history, context and potential of the Chinese space programme.
I managed to catch him for a brief interview at the end of the talk and asked him to sum up the basics:
There were a few things that stood out from his presentation. Firstly, the fact that the Chinese Space Administration is less of a consolidated agency like NASA, and more of an “official window” as Bergquist described it, which is used in order to let outsiders peer in, but in a somewhat controlled manner. The CNSA seems to be a collection of all sorts of different departments with a very complex set-up, which includes both military and civilian partners. I’m sure we’ve all been in meetings where everyone wants to have their say on a subject, so it is impressive to see that despite so many players, the Chinese space programme appears to have progressed in a very structured manner in stages each lasting five years. Berquist suggested that when the Chinese write a white paper and say they will do something, they just get on and do it.
China’s equivalent to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA is designed with two bays to enable twin integration, which would suggest that China has no intention of wasting time when it comes to launching rockets in quick succession, which seemed worthy of note.
It appears that they are recreating American space history on fast-forward. Their first manned mission echoing Mercury, with a single astronaut (taikonaut), their second manned launch took two astronauts and then they moved straight on to three with their third manned launch. Amongst other things they are looking to the moon with a phased programme beginning with an orbital mission, then a soft-lander rover in 2013-14, and automated sample return in 2017. Bergquist mentioned an as yet unconfirmed manned lunar landing. Presently on Earth, all lunar rock samples officially belong to NASA, and the moon missions are still one of their crowning achievements. I would be interested to see how the US public would react to China achieving something similar.
According to Bergquist, the US refuses to work with China, although ESA, being an international partnership itself, is more open to joint ventures. There has already been some collaboration with the Double Star mission, with ESA providing eight on-board scientific instruments to a CNSA craft.
An interview from October 2010 with Karl Berquist on CNTV talking about the collaboration between ESA and CNSA:
Interestingly, ITAR (International Traffic on Arms Regulation) cropped up again, and once more, legislation which was drawn up to protect the US from harm, may inadvertently be costing the country economically. ITAR restrictions prevent any satellite with US components from being launched from China. This surely gives non-ITAR restricted contries an advantage, and will ultimately damage the market for US components. (I may of course be wrong on this final point, and I really must do some proper reading about ITAR. I know that it has caused headaches for international teams competing for the Google Lunar X-prize, and I’ve met more than one rocket scientist who has pulled a face at the very mention of it.)
But back to China, what were Bergquist’s thoughts on the future? Will China be leading space in the 21st century? The political ambition is there, he says, and the infrastructure is either there or being set-up. There will be questions about how to balance military and civilian aspects of the programme as well as exploration vs science, but in the end it depends on China’s continued economic growth.
A question from the audience asked about the public perception of the programme and whether the Chinese would be able to sustain public interest. Bergquist commented that he thinks it will be much the same as America, where people have appetite for mission firsts, but this tends to dwindle. At the drinks reception after the lecture I was talking to a Chinese man who simply said “It doesn’t really matter what the public think, the government will do what it wants anyway”.
China is definitely doing interesting things and I will attempt to learn more. First step is to look up Long March (rockets), Shenzou (spacecraft), Tiangong (Space lab) and Chang’E (lunar programme) to find out more. Next I want to know more about the green rocket fuel that was mentioned in passing – any ideas where to start?
Cached comment from the original version of my website that was lost…)
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