China’s Launch of Lab Closes Gap With U.S. in ‘Crowded’ Space

China Launch of Lab Closes Gap With U.S. in ‘Crowded’ Space
A Long March 2F rocket carrying the country's first space laboratory module Tiangong-1 lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on September 29, 2011 in Jiuquan, Gansu province of China. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

China launched its first space laboratory module yesterday in a step toward a manned station orbiting Earth, two months after the final shuttle mission halted the U.S.’s ability to put people into orbit.

The Tiangong-1 blasted off 9:16 p.m. local time, according the official Xinhua News Agency. President Hu Jintao watched from the control center in Beijing and Premier Wen Jiabao was at the launch site in Jiuquan, Gansu province. The liftoff is part of a program that aims to put a man on the moon by 2020 and, together with high-speed trains, the Beijing Olympics and the world’s biggest nuclear-power expansion, serves as a marker for the nation’s emergence as a global power.

“China sees space as one of the things that will confirm ‘we’re now on a par with Western countries, we’ve entered the club,’” said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington who specializes in technology and security. “It’s prestige, it’s catching up with the West and it’s exploring ways to overcome the U.S. information advantage.”

Yesterday’s launch helps cement China’s lead over emerging nations such as India, Iran and South Korea that are pumping money into matching rocket and docking technology pioneered by the Soviet Union and U.S. five decades ago. As China expands, the U.S. is scaling back on routine manned missions: President Barack Obama last year scrapped plans to return to the moon, setting a goal instead of making a “leap into the future” of deep-space travel.

The U.S. move away from “chokingly expensive” manned flight is a more sustainable model, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Still, with the shuttle grounded, the U.S. is reliant on Russia to fly astronauts to the International Space Station until commercial operators can fill the gap.

Lost Leadership

“It would not be good for China to move forward in the 2020s with a manned lunar program and eventually be ferrying individuals to and from the lunar surface with the U.S. program grounded,” she said in a e-mailed response to questions. “Ceding human spaceflight to the Chinese over the long term would have significant strategic leadership implications.”

China, which made its first successful manned flight in 2003 aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft, plans to put a capsule on the moon in 2013 and have the technology for a manned mission in 2020, Xu Shijie, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference said on March 3 in Beijing. The country plans to launch its own orbital station in about 2020.

The module launched yesterday will be used to practice docking techniques needed before moving to the next phase of building a station, according to the website of China Manned Space Engineering, the country’s space agency.

Military Shadow

While China’s achievements are lauded at home, a lack of transparency over budgets and possible military applications of space technology have raised concerns overseas. CMSE is led by Chang Wanguan, a member of China’s top military body, the Central Military Commission.

“There’s no separation between their ostensibly civilian program and their military program,” said Dean Cheng, a research fellow on Chinese security at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank that describes its mission as designing and promoting conservative public policies.

The Chinese government is “convinced this is the next phase of major competition,” said Huang Jing, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. China believes “whoever dominates in outer space will dominate in military warfare.”

Benefit for All

The government’s intentions are entirely peaceful, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing yesterday. China aims “to contribute to peaceful utilization of space for the benefit of all human kind,” he said.

The more that can be done to increase the civilian component of China’s space program the better, Mark Stokes, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Project 2049 Institute, said by telephone. The U.S. should find ways to cooperate without aiding the military side and is capable of parsing the two, he said.

Space “is a metric of national power,” said Stokes, whose organization focuses on policies promoting security in Asia, according to its website. “If this would make China feel better about itself, if it gives it more confidence, gives it more security, gives it more pride, it’s better than some other ways of doing that.”

The U.S. government aims to encourage responsible behavior in space, Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told lawmakers in May. “Space is ‘‘increasingly congested, contested and competitive,’’ he said, according to a transcript of the hearing. ‘‘A more cooperative, predictable environment enhances our national security and discourages destabling behavior.’’

Space Shower

China in 2007 blew up one of its own satellites in a test of its ability to disrupt global communications networks. The explosion spread thousands of pieces of debris in what the European Space Agency described as ‘‘by far the worst break-up event in space history.’’ The impact of a 10-centimeter fragment of debris on a spacecraft or station ‘‘will most likely entail a catastrophic disintegration of the target,’’ according to the agency’s website.

The U.S. Navy in 2008 used a Raytheon Co. SM-3 missile to destroy a malfunctioning spy satellite that was headed for earth loaded with toxic chemicals. The strike was timed to ensure debris burned up on re-entry.

The challenge for the U.S. isn’t just getting China to agree to rules. Dozens of countries claim space programs, though some -- like North Korea and Iran -- use that as a cover for missile development, Lewis said.

‘‘Governments need to begin discussing space security more directly,” James Clay Moltz, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and is author of the forthcoming book “Asia’s Space Race,” wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “A shooting war in space is in no one’s interest. We need to start talking about conflict prevention, keep-out zones, and stronger norms against destructive activities.”

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