At a next-gen conference on the future of exploration, PM columnist and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds looks at how little we still know about the Chinese antisatellite test—but how far the country's out-of-this-world activity has come.
China shocked the world with its recent antisatellite missile test, but the motivations are still unclear nearly a year and a half later. (Illustration by Jeremy Cook)
WASHINGTON — It's not your father's space program anymore. That's one of the clear messages here at the International Space Development Conference, where the future of exploration is being picked apart by top minds looking for the Next Big Thing—and the Next Big Power in Space.
Yesterday's panel on the Chinese space program made that modern message especially clear, demonstrating just how far exploration has come since the days when "space" meant NASA and its Soviet counterpart ... and not much else.
I found the discussion particularly interesting, not just because it showed China surging ahead compared to relatively stagnant United States program, but because it was a reminder of just how little we know about the actual workings of the Chinese government. Economically, they've opened up. Politically, not so much. In space? That's tricky.
China's out-of-this-world interests are nothing new—they're currently on their eleventh five-year plan. And, in one reassuring view, China is operating like a "normal Asian power" as it accumulates capital, builds overseas markets and grows its industries, in space as elsewhere. On the other hand, some aspects of China's behavior, like its antisatellite weapon test last year, don't fit comfortably with this model, and suggest there's more going on than just market-building. Yet, 16 months later, Western analysts don't understand the decision process that led to that test, or even have a clear picture of who the decisionmakers were. Dean Cheng, the China specialist for research firm CNA, almost stated the obvious: "This has important implications for crisis management." Yeah, it suggests that it will go badly.
What's clearer is that the Chines have ambitious future plans for space. They're working on Lunar exploration, including a lander, a sample return mission and an eventual human mission. They're working on rendezvous and docking in orbit, and they're looking toward a manned spacelab. They're also building a new Long March V booster, which will be comparable to the Saturn V. What's more, China is selling commercial satellites on a turnkey basis, using all of its technology so that U.S. export control laws don't apply—something that appeals to customers like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela.
China views space as an asset at numerous levels: technological, political, commercial and militaristic. Now the U.S. remains the strongest military power in East Asia, and depends heavily on space. But when China proves its technological prowess, that gains political and diplomatic points among its neighbors and with client nations around the world. It also makes Chinese citizens proud—part of the government's effort to harness nationalism. And the Chinese government hopes that a big push in space will help produce a generation of scientists and engineers, as the Apollo program did here in the States.
Space experts differ on whether China wants to compete directly with the U.S.—perhaps, given our slow and fumbling efforts, beating us back to the Moon—or simply displace Japan as the prime technological power in Asia. On the one hand, the U.S. retains a huge lead, while China is still building up spacecraft, like lunar probes and orbital docking equipment, that we mastered back in the 1960s. On the other hand, like America in the 60s, China is forging ahead, while the U.S. in the 21st century is, at best, standing still.