Why You Should Worry About China's First Space Station

China has successfully launched the Tiangong-1, its first space lab. It's the first of a series of small test stations, and the first step towards the country's goal of having a 60-ton space station in orbit by 2020.

Given China's powerful economy and its ongoing push in military technology—anti-SuperCarrier missiles, stealth fighter jets and, most recently, an aircraft carrier—some people are suspicious of the Chinese space program's ultimate intentions. While this mistrust isn't new, it's now more relevant than ever.

Should the world worry about China's expansion to Earth's orbit and beyond?

According to Jiao Weixin, a professor at the School of Earth and Space Sciences at Beijing University, we shouldn't. In fact, the US and the rest of the world should make this all easier for them:

If the US could provide us with high-level instruments, new scientific results will be achieved, which will benefit both sides. If the US keeps being suspicious of China, it will gain nothing but will stimulate our Chinese to strive harder to catch up the US.

His sightly menacing words are a good representation of China's confusing attitude about space collaboration: Give us the stuff for our program or we will go our own way.

China is not going to get the stuff any time soon. Both the US and Russia have always been suspicious about China's space intentions, even while Russia is building a Mars probe with them and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that his visit to China last year "increased mutual understanding on the issue of human spaceflight and space exploration." His visit, however, "did not include consideration of any specific proposals for future cooperation."

Many analysts argue that the Chinese goverment sees space as a political, commercial and military endeavor, not a scientific one. They may be right.

The new space race

Politically, the American and Russian governments don't want to help China. This is perhaps the only area in which China is way behind. And neither Washington nor Moscow have any reason to close that knowledge gap.

Even if China manages to get a complete space station up by 2020, those 60 tons are dwarfed by the International Space Station's 449 tons or the old 130-ton Soviet MIR. Even Skylab, the US space station launched in 1973, was 77 tons. But this is not a matter of who has the bigger space dick. Making a bigger station is just a matter of putting more money on the table, something that China has aplenty. What they don't have is expertise, according to Weixin:

The Tiangong-1 is a necessary step in China's development and a demonstration of the rendezvous and docking skills needed to support a future space station [...] China lacks experiences in space station design. We are not sure what scientific equipment should be used and whether the equipment could conduct scientific research under microgravity environment, so we should test over and over our technologies and equipment through the Tiangong space laboratory.

Orbital rendezvous and docking is not only useful for a space station, but a fundamental part to achieve their bigger objectives: a permanent lunar base and, ultimately, putting the first human on Mars. China can't even dream about that now. As Professor Wu Ji—Director of Center for Space Science and Applied Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences—puts it: "We are a developing country in technology. Not yet a space superpower." That's true now, but they are pushing hard to get there on their own.

Add to these aspirations their traditional military and standard industrial espionage, and it seems obvious why China's space presence in the International Space Station is not welcome right now.

In addition to these political hurdles, there are also technical ones. As Dwayne A. Day at The Space Review puts it, until they try the Shenzhou space capsule many times, "NASA would not want to put astronauts on their vehicle. And until they have demonstrated that they can dock successfully, NASA will never want to let Shenzhou anywhere near the ISS."

China has always played these objections to their advantage, giving the impression that they want to play nice but the other space kids don't let them play. But their ultimate space plans and reality say other things. In fact, Tiangong-1 contradicts China's own words. Back on June 7, 2011, Yang Liwei, deputy head of China's Manned Space Engineering Office and China's first astronaut in space, said that "China has enormous potential to cooperate with other countries in the field of space development [...] China is willing to make positive efforts in this regard."

Liwei later said that China wanted to develop docking technology compatible with the International Space Station. But, during a July 8 press conference, he recognized that Tiangong-1 isn't compatible with the ISS. How can they prove to the international space community that they can and want to collaborate when they aren't going to test their future docking tests according to ISS standards?

The military problem

Then there's the military question. China has traditionally advocated the pacifist use of space and, publicly, continues to do so. The country joined the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1981. On December 1983, China also signed the Outer Space Treaty, originally created by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union in 1967. The treaty bans the militarization use of weapons from orbit and other celestial bodies.

Since then, China has been constantly involved in United Nation's committees for the peaceful use of space. But that was in the 80s and 90s, when China had absolutely no space capability. Then, they saw Russian and American space prowess as a threat to their own interests down here on Earth. Now things may be changing.

In February 2011, Wikileaks revealed that the Chinese and the US were having a behind-the-scenes space standoff. And we know that China conducted an anti-satellite test in 2007 in an effort to demonstrate that they could wage war in orbit. The US responded shortly thereafter with a similar demonstration.

That seems to indicate a disconnection between China's military power and their scientific community. Or perhaps there's none and there's just a double play. It's easy to think of China as a titan that thinks as a single entity. On the other hand, it's also easy to imagine a lot of disagreement in such a bureaucratic behemoth.

Let's all move forward

The only thing that seems clear at this point is that China has a lot of Western technology to grab from a "cooperation" and little to give except money. But to answer the first question, should we worry about China's first space lab?

I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons given by the people at Capitol Hill or the Kremlin. I think letting them go on their own could be a big mistake. And that's why we should worry.

Perhaps we can learn from history. Back in 1972, a very evil and very smart man called Richard Nixon visited China, following a secret visit by another very evil and very smart man named Henry Kissinger. Nixon's intention was to close ties with China—which he did—to put pressure on a common enemy: the Soviet Union. It worked. One could argue that Nixon's move started a chain reaction that ultimately ended in the collapse of Moscow's regime and the end of the Cold War. It was a good example on how collaboration could be used to reach a greater good, even if that greater good was incidental (I think it's safe to assume that Nixon didn't foresee the ultimate consequences of that action).

But there's yet a better lesson about the positive effects of open space exploration. Scott Pace, formerly at NASA and current director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, says that there's a need for China to collaborate with the dominant space powers. He argues that "the US-China relationship is a much friendlier one than was ever the case with the Soviet Union, but the degree of trust necessary for human space flight cooperation is not yet present."

He's referring to the fact that, when the ISS project started, the US and the Soviet Union were still sworn enemies. The ISS started to take shape after the START treaty, with the Cold War still hot. It was a program designed to turn some of the Russian and American military aerospace industry—which all of the sudden was useless thanks to the reduction of nukes—into a peaceful industry. It was also a program between equals, something that China is not, but the circumstances have changed today. But it brought the two countries together. It played its part to make the world a better place.

Maybe it's time to try to take a similar step and close ties before China goes to the moon and Mars on its own. After all, I'm sure the Chinese will arrive. They have the money and the industrial power to do it without our help. Maybe not in the next two decades, but they will eventually. And given the world economic situation, we may arrive just as late—or not at all if we don't collaborate with them.

Perhaps there's an opportunity here to accelerate space exploration. Perhaps I'm naive, but if we can take a leap of faith and open the door to collaboration, we can bring a sense of unity to this Pale Blue Dot and push the world forward.


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