China has already sent eight astronauts into space on four manned missions. Budgetary constraints and technology denial regimes have been cited as the primary causes of tardy progress in India. While this may be so, with the nation afflicted by slow and diffused decision making process, bureaucratic lethargy and an uninspiring political system, India may not be in a position to compete with China where decision making is swift, aggressive and centralised. As a result, China has already established a clear lead over India in the economic, military and technological domains. Awareness of the ground realities was evident in a statement by Dr K Radhakrishnan, Chairman ISRO that, “India was not locked in a space race with China.” Indeed, a race between a hare and a tortoise is possible only in the realm of fables.
End June this year, China stonished the world with another success in the series of ventures into her space endeavour by way of the 13-day mission of the Shenzhou-9 capsule. The mission was executed flawlessly, flagging a landmark which was a major and a critical step forward in the country’s ambitious space program. Having mastered the technology of manned space flight several years after the US and the Soviet Union, in September last year, China moved forward to the next step in human space exploration with the launch of its unmanned space module, the Tiangong 1. This is an experimental space laboratory and a prototype for a future permanently manned Chinese space station to be established by 2020. The Tiangong 1 will be the platform for the mastering of technologies related to rendezvous and docking as also build-up experience for the construction, management and operation of a space station.
China has lofty plans for the exploration of space in the future…
The mission in June 2012 included remotely controlled as well as piloted docking of the Shenzhou 9 capsule with the orbiting Tiangong 1 module. One of the important objectives of the mission was extensive medical monitoring of the astronauts as part of preparations for manning of a permanent space station. A unique feature of the mission was that it had onboard the first Chinese female astronaut, the 33-year old Liu Yang, an experienced pilot in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Also onboard were the 45-year old veteran astronaut Jing Haipeng, who was in command of the mission and newcomer Liu Wang, 43. Both these men are also pilots in the PLAAF with high levels of experience. The completely charred Shenzhou 9 capsule parachuted to a landing on the grasslands of the country’s sprawling Inner Mongolia region on Friday, June 29, 2012 at about 0200 hours GMT.
With the success of the Shenzhou 9 mission, China has leap-frogged in the global space race. In the first half of 2012, China has successfully conducted ten of the 35 launches in the world, racing ahead of both the US and Russia with the former having conducted eight and the latter, nine.
Brief History of China’s Space Programme
Although the development of rocket technology was pioneered in the ancient times by the Chinese, the first real attempt by China at foray into modern technology for space exploration was made by Tsien Hsue-Shen. He was born in China in 1911 and had gone over to the US in 1935 for higher studies on a Boxer Rebellion Scholarship. On his return to China in 1955, he initiated the development of China’s space industry a year later. In the initial stages, China’s efforts at the development of space technology were hampered by primitive industrial infrastructure and low levels of scientific and technological expertise. In fact, the Chinese aeronautical industry did not possess the capability to build even a supersonic combat aircraft let alone a spacecraft. However, through relentless efforts, after five and half decades of struggle and with some assistance from the erstwhile Soviet Union, China today ranks among the most advanced countries in the world in the regime of space technology.
Having developed an unmanned spacecraft, indigenous cryogenic engine technology and the family of Long March rockets capable of inserting payloads of up to 9,200 kg in orbit, China entered the international commercial launch market in 1985. By the year 2000, China had launched 27 satellites for the international market. On parallel track, by the year 2000, China had launched 47 satellites of various types to meet with the requirements of the domestic segment. The success rate achieved in these was of over 90 per cent. It may appear somewhat incongruous but it is understood that the Chinese space effort did receive some assistance in respect of improvement of design following a series of launch failures prior to 1996. US support was, however, withdrawn subsequent to embargo on transfer of technology and other political considerations unfavourable to China.
By this time, China had established three launch sites appropriately situated for achieving different desired orbits for their satellites. These were – Jiuquan for mid-inclination orbit, Xichang for geo-synchronous orbit and Taiyuan for polar orbit. The four categories of satellites developed by China were Fanhui Shei Weixing, Recoverable Test Satellites used initially for military reconnaissance, Shijian (SJ) scientific research and Technological Experiment Satellites to obtain data on the space environment, Dong-fang-hong (DFH) satellites employed for telecommunications, Feng-yun (FY) meteorological satellites for tracking of weather with FY1 series operating in low-earth sun-synchronous orbit and the FY2 operating in geo-synchronous orbit. Incidentally, China was the third nation in the world to develop satellite recovery capability.
With the success of the Shenzhou 9 mission, China has leap-frogged in the global space race.
The China National Space Administration (CNSA) was established by the government at the turn of the century for the management of the Chinese space programme for civilian use as well as for international cooperation. CNSA had a wide ranging mandate with objectives spelt out for a 20-year timeframe which included the development of an integrated space infrastructure, marketing of space technology and applications, international cooperation for advanced technology from the West and to assist developing countries in the regime of space technology. However, the central focus for CNSA was to steer the national efforts for China to become a world leader in the field of space science and exploration of outer space.
In response to the initiatives by the US, the then Soviet Union and Europe in space exploration and military related space activities such as the Star Wars programmes, in July 1985, China conceived and initiated its own manned space flight programme. However, the project actually commenced in 1992 and was designated as Project 921-1 with a mandate to launch the first manned mission into space in October 1999. China was clearly determined not to be left behind in the space race or in any way slowdown her drive to emerge as a world power. The scientific community in China was of the firm view that merely sending astronauts into space to orbit the Earth was not enough and that the establishment of a manned space station ought to be one of the national goals for the nation. They believed that this would help China develop all aspects of space technology in a comprehensive manner including advanced launch vehicle capabilities.
The plans for space exploration in China were executed with utmost secrecy and its details remained largely unknown to the outside world. Also, China declined invitation by the US for participating in the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programmes. However, in the period 1983 to 1988, China signed a number of treaties on space under the auspices of the United Nations and began participating in international conferences.
China today ranks among the most advanced countries in the world in the regime of space technology.
After years of careful planning and testing as also a series of unmanned space flights in the preceding four years, China’s first manned spacecraft, the Shenzhou 5 (Divine Craft), finally blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the North Western province of Gansu on October 15, 2003, four years behind the originally planned schedule. The Shenzhou 5 spacecraft atop a Long March II F rocket was piloted by Yang Liwei, 38, a Lieutenant Colonel of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and a member of the PLA’s Astronauts Team trained inhouse. The Shenzhou 5 spacecraft orbited the Earth 14 times before landing safely in North China the following day. The successful launch and recovery of the spacecraft made China the third country after Russia and the US to send a human being into space. In 2008, a Chinese astronaut completed the nation’s first space walk.
As stated earlier, to date, China has launched a total of four manned space missions since 2003 as against the total number of 118 manned space flights by Russia and 170 by the US. Eight Chinese nationals have been into space on manned flights undertaken by China since 2003.
While China’s space programme was projected all along as having a civilian character, the technologies employed and the capabilities developed could easily be adapted for military use, a practice not unusual amongst all spacefaring nations. However, on a dedicated military front, in September 2006, China is reported to have secretly fired a powerful laser weapon from the ground designed to disable American spy satellites by ‘blinding’ their sensitive surveillance devices when transiting over China’s territory. This was not publicly acknowledged by the US government under compulsions of international diplomacy. At that point in time the greater concern of the US was that its attempts to co-opt China in diplomatic offensives against North Korea and Iran did not run aground.
Again on January 11, 2007, the Chinese military successfully carried out its first hard-kill test of an anti-satellite weapon. In this experiment, a ground-based medium range ballistic missile was fired to physically destroy one of its own ageing weather satellites orbiting in space 537 miles above the surface of the Earth. Though seemingly inconsistent with her stand against the weaponisation of space, the anti-satellite weapon experiments demonstrated China’s ability to target spy satellites not only of the US but of other nations hostile to China which could include India as well. With this demonstration, China clearly displayed her resolve to play a major and a dominant role in the global military space regime as well.
China has lofty plans for the exploration of space in the future. In August this year, the Chinese space agency CNSA announced its intention to launch its third unmanned mission to the moon in the second half of 2013 under the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). This will be the first Chinese probe that will attempt a soft landing on the moon employing a Chang’e-3 spacecraft and explore its surface with the help of a rover, transmit data and return to Earth. The landing and successful journey back to Earth will make China the second nation to complete an exploratory mission to the moon. This is seen as a critical step for her plans to send a manned mission to the moon sometime in the next decade. Given the complexities, it is likely that a manned expedition to the moon may not be possible before 2025.
The plans for space exploration in China were executed with utmost secrecy…
Apart from missions to the moon, China has set for itself a target of 20 launches annually to develop technologies for application in a variety of areas such as communications, remote sensing, navigation, reconnaissance, space walk, docking and construction of space station. Just for navigation alone, China plans to have 35 satellites in orbit by 2020. China is undoubtedly embarked on enhancing her role in space with the aim to eventually emerge as a world leader.
Implications for India
India’s space programme began in the early sixties, a few years behind China. The government-owned Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has, in relative terms, performed better than other scientific departments and institutions of the Indian government. As per UR Rao, former Chairman of ISRO, “The Indian space endeavour has been focused on research and applications aimed at meeting the economic and social development needs of our country.”
ISRO has undoubtedly done well in areas of communications, remote sensing, weather monitoring and navigation. It has also been able to exploit opportunities in the global commercial launch market. However, in the overall perspective, India has lagged far behind China in the space race. India has so far been able to send only one mission to the moon called Chandrayaan I that involved inserting a satellite in lunar orbit. Chandrayan II, which envisages a moon lander and rover, is to be executed in collaboration with Russia’s Federal Space Agency Roskosmos. The launch, scheduled for 2013, is likely to be delayed on account of a ‘major’ review of Russian space programme following a recently failed mission. ISRO has also to deal with problems with the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), having experienced four consecutive failures. Only one GSLV launch was successful and that too only partially.
In July 1985, China conceived and initiated its own manned space flight programme…
On account of all these issues, the time frame for the launch of Chandrayaan II is quite uncertain. In the meantime, ISRO has announced plans for a mission to the Mars on which the scientific community stands divided. Some are of the view that ISRO’s priorities are distorted and that Chandrayaan II ought to have priority over the proposed mission to Mars.
Then there is talk of a manned space flight but there does not appear to be any substantial progress towards this objective so far. It is understood that there is no approval by the Indian government as yet for a manned space flight. Budgetary constraints and technology denial regimes have been cited as the primary causes of tardy progress in India. While this may be so, with the nation afflicted by slow and diffused decision-making process, bureaucratic lethargy and an uninspiring political system, India may not be in a position to compete with China where decision making is swift, aggressive and centralised. As a result, China has already established a clear lead over India in the economic, military and technological domains. Awareness of ground realities was evident in a statement by Dr K Radhakrishnan, Chairman ISRO that, “India was not locked in a space race with China.” Indeed, a race between a hare and a tortoise is possible only in the realm of fables.
The rapid progress that China has made in space technology has implications for India’s national security. Space will undoubtedly be the military high ground for warfare in the future. China has already established a commanding lead over India in not only supporting operations from space but also in acquiring the capability of neutralising Indian satellites that could be used for military purposes. But what is more ominous for India is Chinese support for Pakistan in the regime of space technology especially in the event of a conflict with one or both the not-so-friendly neighbours.
What is more ominous for India is Chinese support for Pakistan in the regime of space technology…
Defence cooperation between Pakistan and China that has obvious implications for India’s security interests, has increased in recent years. Pakistan and China have jointly developed the JF-17 Thunder, a multi-role combat aircraft. China is also building four F-22P frigates for the Pakistan Navy in a deal that also includes transfer of technology. There is no doubt that military cooperation between Pakistan and China will extend to space technology. Both the countries have in place a Framework Agreement between Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO) and CNSA on strengthening cooperation in space technology including collaboration in the fabrication and launching of satellites. PAKSAT-1R, an upgraded version of PAKSAT-1 communication satellite manufactured by China, was launched on August 12 last year from China. On the occasion of the first anniversary of the launch, the defence establishments of both Pakistan and China have reiterated their commitment to continue their cooperation on space projects and further strengthen their all-weather strategic partnership.
The Final Word
It is only logical that China and India, the two largest and most populous nations in Asia and even in the world, are destined to be rivals, politically, economically, militarily and technologically. The ability to control and exploit space will accrue disproportionate benefits across the board especially to secure national security interests including most importantly energy security through access to the vast and virtually inexhaustible reserves of Helium 3 present on the surface of the moon. Helium 3, a source of fuel for the generation of nuclear power through fission, is not available in adequate quantities on the surface of the Earth. The Indian space establishment needs to review long term plans and re-orientate its priorities to reduce, if not close, the ever-widening gap with China in the regime of space exploration.