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2010 and beyond: China’s space program

January 3, 2010 – 3:15 pm

One of the hottest newcomers in the space race is China and this is a good moment to look at what China has achieved in space so far. In August 2008 I did a writeup of China’s history in spaceflight, now it’s time for an update, answering two key questions:

  1. What is the role of the Chinese spaceflight now and in the coming years?
  2. Will China land on the moon before the USA does it again?

shenzhou 5 after earth return

Shenzhou 5 return capsule after landing successful in the desert.

Before we get started, let’s have a look at the missions to come in 2010:

  • Start a total of eight Compass satellites. The Compass system is a direct competitor to GPS and the European Galileo system, intended for navigation. China could just use the existing GPS. However the Chinese made the same conclusions as the Europeans. They want to be independent from foreign technology.
  • In October 2007 China sent Chang’e-1 (嫦娥一号 Cháng’é Yīhào) to the moon. Now it’s time for a more potent mission and Chang’e-2 (嫦娥二号 Cháng’é Èr Hào) is supposed to start in 2010. The second version of this moon orbiter is quite similar to the first. One of the few changes is a better camera which should take pictures with 5m per pixel resolution.
  • The first Chinese space station 天宫一号 (tiān gōng yī hào, “Heavenly Palace”) was supposed to launch in 2010, however it got pushed back to early 2011. According to Chinese media the construction already started, so this should be a minor delay.
  • Also in 2011 we will see the first unmanned Chinese Mars mission, called 萤火一号 (yínghuǒ Yīhào), which will orbit the red planet for one year and take pictures and other measurements.

What is the role of the Chinese spaceflight now and in the coming years?

China has always celebrated its achievements in space, like all the other nations that have a space program. What a expensive car like a Ferrari is to a man, is spaceflight to a developed nation. An expression and demonstration of power and superiority. At the same time spaceflight has commercial value. The Chinese government understands this and is pushing its space program with a lot of money. Yet China spends way less than USA. While a lot of propaganda is coming from the communist party members, few reliable information on the aims of the Chinese space program is available. I draw my conclusions by observing previous and coming Chinese space missions instead of just rewriting what officials said.

When the USA and Russia started with their manned space program, every year several astronauts were sent into space. The Chinese however send a much lower number of astronauts into space. While they are aware that their space program boosts national self confidence, they are afraid of failure. The Chinese government, like most dictatorships, want things to happen in perfect order. A single failed manned spaceflight would not only blame CNSA (China National Space Administration), but also the government itself. I guess they check everything three times, before it gets launched, just to avoid failure. This does cost time and delays everything.

The Chinese space program is also driven by commercial purposes, not by science. Everything that makes China stronger in a economic sense will be sent into space, however the science part is comparatively small. Focus points of the unmanned part include navigation, communication, weather prediction and earth observation.

China will put a lot of satellites into space to foster its thriving economy. The number of Chinese satellites increases quickly and a number of space based services they currently buy from the West will be soon in their own hands. The science part is and will be a minor part of the Chinese spaceflight in the 2010s. This reflects the pragmatic attitude of the Chinese people. A few science missions will be promoted as national achievements to get more people into studying science related subjects, however the scientific impact will be rather small.

Will China land on the moon before the USA does it again?

Chinese moon goddess Chang'e

This implies the question, when will the USA land on the moon again? A realistic date for the USA to put another man on the moon is the middle 2030s, Barack Obama has yet to make a decision how and if he wants to support Bush’s moon vision. Chinese propaganda experienced officials have announced a Chinese moon landing as early as “before 2020″, several have announced “not later than 2029″ and a few conservative voices talked about “before 2040″. Looking at the Chinese spaceflight hardware will help to draw realistic conclusions.

The Apollo missions of NASA to the moon were pretty unsafe. Mission managers expected a risk of 1:25 for loss of crew. If either the USA or China want to make a mission with a similar risk today and without any science, both can land on the moon before 2020. However the USA said, they want a safe mission and they want to do good science. A goal they can achieve in the early 2030s. China on the other hand probably wants to do less science, yet they want a safe mission for political reasons.

The heaviest man rated launch vehicle in China currently in use is the Long March 2F, which is capable of lifting 8.4 metric tonnes to LEO (low earth orbit). In 2010 the Chinese want to test their improved version, the Long March 2G, capable of lifting 11.2 metric tonnes to LEO. The Saturn V, used in the US moon program, was capable of lifting 118.8 metric tonnes to LEO. A launcher with a capability of at least 100 metric tonnes to LEO is probably necessary to put a man on the moon (Although the Chinese people have the advantage of being smaller and lighter in general). The Chinese also have the Long March 3B rocket, which can lift up to 12 metric tonnes to LEO, however this variant is not man rated, which means unsafe for transportation of humans.

The next step will be Long March 5. This Chinese heavy lift vehicle is supposed to lift 25 metric tonnes to LEO, a major improvement. It is unknown, if this will be a man rated rocket, but even if it is, it is way to small for a manned Chinese moon flight. This rocket should see its maiden flight in 2015, but it is only one fourth of the necessary size for a moon flight. China has develop another behemoth before a flight to the moon can become reality. With increased safety requirements the development times also increase. Long March 5 was first announced in February 2001, Planning started in 2002 and the maiden flight is supposed to in 2014 or 2015. The time from announcement to actual launch therefore is 13 years. Today the CNSA has more money at their hands, but I guess a 100 tonnes launcher still needs 10 years from announcement to reality.

Once a rocket made its maiden flight, it is not yet ready for regular use. A few launches have to be made before anyone will risk putting a group of humans on top of this rocket. If announced tomorrow, a 100 tonnes launcher could be ready for use in the early 2020s, which proves the propaganda of a Chinese person on the moon before 2020 wrong.

The second thing that has to be developed is the actual moon vehicle, consisting of earth departure stage, moon descend stage, moon ascend stage and return capsule. China is very busy getting its first space station Tiangong 1 into space. After that they plan to get Tiangong 2 around 2015 into space and Tiangong 3 soon after 2015. Only after these stations have been deployed into space they can focus on the moon vehicle of a possible moon mission. The development time of such a vehicle is probably a little bit longer than the US Apollo vehicle. I estimate 10 years is a possible timeframe. If China starts to develop this moon vehicle right after the 3rd Tiangong, they could start working on it in 2017. So their earliest possible date for landing on the moon is 2027, if China decides to put all the money that is necessary into this venture.

A goal of “2029″ therefore sounds possible, but is it probable? In 2009 China Manned Space Engineering programme deputy general designer Wang Zhonggui said: “The Moon is still far away for our technology.” He also said that there is no timeframe for a manned Chinese moon landing, which is much more realistic than the official propaganda. At the same time he admitted, that scientists in CNSA are indeed thinking about the moon. China wants to make sure that its space venturing makes economic sense and they want to make sure they do it in a safe way (very different from their cheap sweatshop factories). This requires more time and a step by step approach. Seeing a Chinese man on the moon in the mid 2030s is therefore realistic.

From a economic point of view a manned space flight to the moon doesn’t make much sense. Maybe the USA cancels its repeat of the manned moon landing. China probably will do it, just to have it done as well. If the worldwide economy remains grim for a few years, both China’s and the USA’s plans could both delayed one or several decades. The only thing that I would actually bet some money on is, some person, of some nation, will step on the moon before 2050. Anything else is speculation.

Absurd space journalism

When journalists write about space, they often have no clue. Let’s look about this masterpiece of the Telegraph called China ‘will beat US’ in manned Mars mission, written in August 2002 (only 8 years ago):

“Preparations for a manned flight have been intensified as scientists rush to complete the programme ahead of a 2005 deadline for placing astronauts on an orbiting space station. The programme for getting to Mars is slightly vaguer, although the year 2010 is frequently mentioned as a target date.”

Neither the Chinese space station is a reality, nor is the manned Mars flight anywhere nearby. A few paragraphs later the author corrects himself and puts the year 2040 on the table, however with a critical analysis even this can be identified as fantasy. Most pieces about CNSA’s, NASA’s or any nation’s spaceflight plans in mainstream media are of similar quality. Journalists without a remote idea of physical laws just repeat what the propaganda spits out, presenting it as real. If the Chinese and USA and others start cooperating on a serious level, then a manned Mars flight might be possible before 2100. Otherwise I doubt anyone will step on the red planet in this century.

I hope my article gives a better view on what is possible and what is probable. Yet I’m excited to see what China does next in manned and unmanned spaceflight.

Update 2010-08-11: News from August 2010 indicates, that a Chinese moon rocket is in a early planning stage.


Lauch of Shenzhou 5 in October 2003, the first manned spaceflight of China.

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  1. 12 Responses to “2010 and beyond: China’s space program”

  2. The NASA is, according to the constellation programm, planning to re-land on the moon in 2019 and around 2030 on Mars… They therefore use ARES V as a carrier, which can lift 130 tonns, so more than Saturn V!

    However, the budget of the CNSA is rather small, smaller than the one of ESA, as far as I am concerned. I’ve heard numbers of less than 1 billion Euro a year… If they don’t make more serious efforts, a moon flight is gonna be very hard to achieve.

    By Aremonus on Jan 4, 2010

  3. You are not up to date Aremonus. Check this page and read the linked pdf “Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee – Final Report”
    (yea, the pdf is a long read, but it’s worth it, if you want to know where NASA is heading right now)

    In short: Ares I for crew transport made its maiden flight already, however it’s not ready for manned use before 2015, because the Orion capsule is still not ready. Ares V might be ready by 2019 if they abandon the ISS, because of the money. But who wants to abandon a freshly completed space station worth 100 billion dollars? The investment is made and now begins the time of harvesting the rewards. They will probably decide to push back Ares V to the mid 2020s, so they can keep the ISS for a while. As there is not enough money for a direct moon landing, they might do something called flexible path. Moon landing might occur in the 2030s. More details in the pdf.

    Obama, his advisers, as well as the NASA administration are in strong favor of flexible path. The decision shall be made in spring 2011. This puts a manned US Moon landing into the early to mid 2030s. A long time and another future president could cancel it, if he chooses to do so.

    I wrote it already in the article. Mainstream media is clueless. There never was a plan to land a man on the moon again before 2020 within the Constellation program. The media just got it wrong. Stick to more scientific sites.

    Regarding China: Yes, I also heard about numbers of less than 1 billion dollars, however what do we really know about the Chinese budget? I would rather rate CNSA by looking at their accomplishments, instead of the money numbers. If the government decides it is necessary to put a communist on the moon surface, then the money will flow. They do have the money, it’s a question of political will. I’m pretty sure they do want to get at least equal to the US within the next few decades.

    The Chinese rockets are derived from Soviet/Russian models. They might have similar costs of transporting humans to LEO, namely $US 4000 per KG. That puts a Long March 5 (25 tonnes) into the $US 100 Million range. Smaller launchers are less cost effective and man rated are always more expensive compared to unmanned vehicles. A Long March 2 they currently use for their human spaceflight missions might be $US 50 million. That’s only the rocket, without the crew capsule or mission development and mission costs. Have fun playing with the numbers ;)

    By Hendrik on Jan 4, 2010

  4. Well, I’ve looked up constellation programm on, so it’s possible that there aren’t the most recent information available. However, I don’t really believe any of those numbers anyway.. politics change fast in the states, and so do they in China. One financial crisis or devlation, so the gov spends. And on another occasion, they suddenly feel that something else is more important, so they change again.

    Let’s see wether this fascinating part of science will be pushed forward in the future… Obama’s just got a lot of minus-points on my personal rating -.- Spends more than anyone before, but cuts money for important parts of science…

    By Aremonus on Jan 4, 2010

  5. Please read the above linked pdf, before you award minus points to Obama. Someone else brought down the world economy.

    Apart from that, politics change fast. I have to become a millionaire and start my own space program :D

    By Hendrik on Jan 4, 2010

  6. Oh, I didn’t mean that the Bush Administration did any better, and I do appreciate other policies of the new president. However, I’ve hoped that he’d fight the deficite instead of increase it on one hand, and that he’d give America a vision again on the other hand. However, leading a 300 Million Nation isn’t easy, and I won’t say that he’s a good or a bad president until four years later when I see the results. If he’s able to fight Americas debts as efficient as Clinton or make the economy gain a sustainable momentum like Reagan, he did a good job. If he becomes a vicitme of lobbyists.. well, that’s what we’ve seen before with Bush.

    I’m afraid that becoming a millionaire won’t be enough to run your own space program. What about becoming a billionaire? :D

    By Aremonus on Jan 5, 2010

  7. Agree and Agree ;)

    By Hendrik on Jan 5, 2010

  8. Interesting stuff.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the US and China played nice and went together?

    By stuart on Jan 5, 2010

  9. Oh, I believe some competition won’t harm… currently, US is stemming against cooperating with China, which already wanted to participate in the ISS.

    By Aremonus on Jan 5, 2010

  10. At the moment it’s 99% competition.
    And then there is the emerging private sector, which would deserve another big article.

    By Hendrik on Jan 5, 2010

  11. It is better if we fix Earth first, discover renewable energies, stop fighting amongst ourselves because of politics religion skin colour and sexual orientation, give the animals a place to live, forrests a chance to grow. Then we can dabble in space exploration.

    We have got the science all screwed up. Stop day dreaming looking towards the stars wake up and focus on this planet.

    Maybe in the process of improving earth sciences we’ll discover the magic formula for anti gravity levitation. Rockets will be seen as barbaric toys for wealthy children who grew up to be leaders.

    By Buddy on Sep 9, 2010

  12. Hi Buddy,

    I hear this comment very often, but I can argue in the same way…

    Why not stop all football matches all over the world and the players and the audience do something for our society instead?

    Why buy a big house if we can live in a small apartment and send the money to Africa?

    Space science is one way to make people all over the world communicate and strengthen friendship. I don’t think we should stop that.

    By Hendrik on Sep 10, 2010

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