What China's New Space Station Means For The World

Once in space, it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to the moon... and Mars. And the Chinese aren't thinking small.

China is launching its very own space station. Countries have achieved such a feat absent international cooperation only twice before—Russia's Salyut, in 1971, and the United States' Skylab, in 1973. After successful manned space flights and a robotic lunar lander, a space station would be a potent political symbol in an era when the U.S. has no means to get astronauts into space other than paying the Russians.

Because its space program is a subsidiary of the People's Liberation Army, some have concluded that China's designs on space are military, but thoughtful observers disagree: the association between the country's space exploration program and the PLA is about the past, not the future. Chinese lasers won't be raining down on us from space any time soon. The future of China's space program is not about weapons, it's about putting a Chinese man on the moon.

The thing about China—a nation led by engineers—is that through the vehicle of its 5-year plans, its government methodically pursues its stated goals. It's happened before in microchips, leading the Chinese government to develop a home-grown processor that may some day challenge Intel. And it's happening in space.

Human space exploration requires mastery of a succession of tasks: getting a human home from space safely. Spacewalks. Docking in orbit. Living in space for extended periods. The Chinese space program has accomplished all of these goals except the last; the space station completes the country's maturation as the world's current leading space power. The step beyond this program program would be the most public and visible demonstration imaginable of the country's ascendancy: it would mean reproducing the United States' most singular moment of scientific and military triumph, a boot-print on lunar soil.

The Chinese Lunar Exploration Program is led by Ouyang Ziyuan, a science-fiction futurist to rival David Brin and Ray Kurzweil. His first career was in geology and mines, and he sees the moon as a long-term solution to China's problems with energy and resource scarcity. He has pointed out that the moon is full of iron, and it's also full of helium-3, which can be used to power a nuclear fusion reactor. That's big thinking. With China mining the moon while we twiddle our thumbs at Cape Canaveral, we'll be forced to buy lunar minerals from them along with everything else on our shopping list.

You don't need a space station to get to the moon, of course, but you do need one to get to Mars. It's possible—even likely—that this prestige project is ultimately as much about getting to the red planet, a goal China shares with its Russian partners. Red China on the red planet: it's strangely poetic.

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Related: China Plans Its Own Space Station, Starting Next Year

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8 Comments

  • Greg Autry

    You may find “Red China on the Red Planet” poetic, but the Communist Party’s victims from Tiananmen to Tibet would find it horrifying. This naïve piece reads like the dreams of pre-teen girl with a crush.

    Yes Ouyang Ziyuan is inspiring and brilliant – just like Qian Xuesen was – but it doesn’t make a difference how inspired the scientist is if he reports to criminals. The thugs who jail artists and Nobel prize winners and persecute the Falun Gong have not gone anywhere in peace – ask the Uighars or China’s new slaves in Africa. Hu and his Boys from Beijing are just one small step beyond the Nazis. The Chinese space program is as if Von Braun were still reporting to Herr Hitler. That inspired, sci-fi loving genius, was willing to sell his soul to the devil to build his rocket machines and Quyang is no different. American’s however should know better and stop parroting his lies.

    Let us allow the Chinese speak for themselves. From the People’s Daily article about Ouyang consider: “the moon can be the top height for environment monitoring with vital military importance.” - The People's Daily 2/7/07

    Or how about this from a Chinese military strategist (via USCC 2007 report) : “Our future space weapons program should be low profile and ‘intense internally’ but relaxed in external appearance to maintain our good international image and position.” - this technique has certainly worked well with this author and FastCompany.

    If you are still dreaming of a peacefully rising China please read “Death by China” or visit www.deathbychina.com.

  • Greg Autry

    You may find “Red China on the Red Planet” poetic, but the Communist Party’s victims from Tiananmen to Tibet would find it horrifying. This naïve piece reads like the dreams of pre-teen girl with a crush.

    Yes Ouyang Ziyuan is inspiring and brilliant – just like Qian Xuesen was – but it doesn’t make a difference how inspired the scientist is if he reports to criminals. The thugs who jail artists and Nobel prize winners and persecute the Falun Gong have not gone anywhere in peace – ask the Uighars or China’s new slaves in Africa. Hu and his Boys from Beijing are just one small step beyond the Nazis. The Chinese space program is as if Von Braun were still reporting to Herr Hitler. That inspired, sci-fi loving genius, was willing to sell his soul to the devil to build his rocket machines and Quyang is no different. American’s however should know better and stop parroting his lies.

    Let us allow the Chinese speak for themselves. From the People’s Daily article about Ouyang consider: “the moon can be the top height for environment monitoring with vital military importance.” http://english.peopledaily.com...

    Or how about: “Our future space weapons program should be low profile and ‘intense internally’ but relaxed in external appearance to maintain our good international image and position.” http://www.policyarchive.org/h... (pg. 4) (this technique has certainly worked well with this author and FastCompany).

    If you are still dreaming of a peacefully rising China please read “Death by China” or visit www.deathbychina.com.

  • TomMariner

    fifty years ago the US was a country led by visionaries who understood that their land would be judged to be leaders of everything if they took the visible technical risks to venture into space. And the scientific achievements on the moon would motivate an entire generation to study technical subjects. And of course, as soon as these new students finished school we decided it was less risky to sell stuff to each other, make and interpret laws, and stand on stage with a hoodie.

    So the folks who made the Lunar Excursion Module and the composites and ceramics that came out of that are either retired or tending bar -- because we don't do that anymore.

    And China read our success playbook from the 20'th Century and is going to space with a vengence. We not only are going to look like chumps, but will very quickly find ourselves a second-rate economy. Not sure how you say this in Chinese, but "Hey, wasn't the first guy who walked on the moon an American? Whatever happened to that country anyway?"

  • JOHN JACKSON

    Thanks to the Obama administration, the US is trying to make the Kessel Run with a Capissen 38 engine.

  • Ricardo Rodriguez

    "The thing about China--a nation led by engineers--..."

    I don't understand that comment. China is led by communist dictators. It sets a rather liberally-slanted tone to the entire piece, which makes me think the author hates Chinese.

    If our politicians approached problems like engineers, we wouldn't have half the strife we do today, in our nation -- much, much less the Chinese...

  • NDS

    "...a science-fiction futurist to rival David Brin & Ray Kurzweil" - This is moronic journalism & you ruin what was a perfectly interesting piece. There is nothing science-fiction about Ouyang Ziyuan or Ray Kurzweil.