Back in July 2011 I wrote a blog about China… and Space, then followed up with a further four pieces, the last of them written in October 2016. This is an area into which the Chinese government has put huge amounts of money and an incredible amount of effort. It is also, as a writer of science fiction – a fascinating subject. And so what I intend to do (and will be doing with various subjects) is to present the original blogs and then provide an update – a kind of “what happened next” exercise that, I guarantee, is just the kind of thing which, if you’re an SF fan, might seem like a fiction. Only this is all true. It’s happening right now, and if I’m right then this is China’s first step on a path to world domination.
What was it Robert A Heinlein claimed in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS? – something about whoever has the upper ground (of a gravity well) controls the earth?
Here, anyway, is the first of the five. Read on!
100 Days [Tuesday 26th July 2011]
Today marks precisely one hundred days until the publication of the second Chung Kuo novel, Daylight On Iron Mountain. Like its predecessor, Son Of Heaven, it’s a completely new work, and takes the reader from where matters left off in 2065 to two years later, then jumps forward twenty years to 2087 and the momentous events of that year.
I’ve always seen Daylight as being a bridge between the bucolic, post-Apocalypse world of Son Of Heaven and that teeming, overcrowded world we first see for real in The Middle Kingdom, which is set more than a century later. It’s an explanation of that world, and why it’s shaped the way it is. Old hands at Chung Kuo might comment that there was never a need for explanations, but I’m not so sure. In imaginatively returning to those early years of Chung Kuo, I found myself understanding it far better, making greater sense of what I’d created first time round. And besides, it was fun writing it. Fun showing Tsao Ch’un in his middle years as well as his late. At his prime as well as in decline.
And so the countdown begins. An as the days pass, I’ll keep you advised of what’s happening – giving you a glimpse of all the processes that go into the publication and promotion of the book.
But before I do… let me address something that’s been very much in my mind these past few days – something which seems totally within my remit as author of Chung Kuo, and that’s the unshakeable sense I have that, over this very weekend that’s just passed, we have seen the final and irreversible passing of power from one empire to another.
Yeah. I’m talking NASA and the last space shuttle flight and President Obama’s giving up on the future. Because that’s what it is. The Russians might be putting up more space shots than the Chinese right now, but I’ve no doubt to whom the future belongs – in space, anyway – and that’s China. They’re busy pumping money and effort into sending not merely probes but crews to the moon and ultimately to Mars. By 2020 we’ll begin to see that, and a further ten years on – and I have no doubts at all about this – we’ll see them begin to colonise those two big chunks of rock, for purposed we might well not agree on.
I’m not alone in thinking there’s been a radical power shift, and that it’s happening right now. Twelve per cent growth a year, that’s what we’re talking about, while the West languishes and wonders whether it can scrape together sufficient funding to keep the wheels oiled and turning. And what are the Chinese doing with all that liquidity they’re in possession of? Building weaponry. Fleets and armies, and endless spacecraft. It makes me think of Heinlein and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. I mean, what is going to happen when we’ve got China in control of the wrong end of that gravity well?
Of course, things might change. There’s an election next year for a start and, though I’m a socialist and thus a democrat at heart, I can see that any Republican candidate who seems to resurrect America’s outward-looking spirit, by pumping funds into a newly-revitalised NASA space programme might well stand a chance. Americans, after all, want some sign from their leaders that they have some kind of influence over the future, and right now that’s the lone thing Obama isn’t giving them.
And hey, it’d be nice for once to get your feedback on this one. Do you agree with me? Or do you think things will turn out a lot better than I’ve intimated? That’s why I’m posting this on both the official site and the fan site – to try and get some coverage and some debate going. What are your feelings on what’s happening in our world – in particular as far as China and America are concerned.
Here’s a few things to throw into the mix and get you thinking.
The ISS – the international space station – is due to be mothballed in 2020, with no successor planned. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the 100-ton station the Chinese plan to have up there by 2020 as the final phase of their Project 921. And even before then China will have put its Shenzou 7 space laboratory module in orbit, with a manned crew, by the end of 2012.
In the meantime, with the shuttles grounded, 3,200 NASA staff sacked, and NASA’s budget stripped to the bone, the only option America has, if it wants to put an astronaut in space, is to literally buy space on a soviet rocket, at $60 million a throw.
And what’s going to replace NASA?
Privately funded space exploration companies, that’s what. Now, this might actually work. But any such private concerns will have to satisfy their investors, because the amount of US government funding going into encouraging this venture, is minimal – less than a billion dollars, whereas the shuttle had $150 billion pumped into it. Some commentators believe that what we’ll get is hotels on the moon. That is, if the Chinese haven’t claimed the moon by then.
If you’ve time, search out William Hawkin’s web article, “Forfeiting U.S. leadership in Space”. Now, I don’t think I’d see eye to eye on many things, but I do on this and his article is, at worst, thought-provoking. Let me quote him –
“The stirring vision of giant space stations, commercial shuttle flights and extensive moon bases given to the public in the classic 1968 film 2000: A Space Odyssey has become a sad testimony to three decades of lost American opportunities. I have seen this once great American spirit of adventure reborn in China. I have been amazed (and alarmed) by displays of Chinese plans to build bases on the moon, then move farther into the solar system. I grew up in a confident America animated by futuristic thinking, but that drive has faded. Beijing is now the home of energy and ambition.”
It’s really really hard to argue with any of that. China is what America was. With the advantage that the Chinese politburo can keep pumping billions and billions of yuan into their project, whereas the Americans…
Well, with what’s going on right now on Capitol Hill, do I really have to make the point? The US is being penny wise and pound foolish (as we English term it) in abandoning space. And abandon it they have, have no doubt about it. They’ve given away their inheritance.
Where has the spirit of The Right Stuff gone? And how in the God’s name have the American people put a man in charge who hasn’t the vision or common sense to see that NASA isn’t an indulgence, it’s a necessity if America wishes to remain a great power. Oh … and just to rub salt in the wound, it’s been estimated that the wealth of the moon (if mined) is in excess of $20 trillion. And who’ll get the benefit of that?
That’s right. The Chinese.
Not to speak of Mars. Now, one lof the things President Obama said, when cancelling NASA’s lunar project back in 2010 (which effectively killed NASA off!) was that “we’ve been there before2. And if you think that was inane, he went on to say ‘There’s a lot more of space to explore”. Well, yes, there is, only it has to be approached step by step, and a permanent base on the moon was an essential step. The Chinese realise this and have designed their space programme to cover all bases and to take all of the steps that have to be taken. That’s why – with some confidence – they can talk about putting a man on Mars by 2035.
And then? Then China will claim Mars for their own, and anything else that’s out there. Just watch it happen.
Okay. Enough. I could (and probably will) add more. But come back to me on this one. Am I just being paranoid? Does President Obama have a point? Or am I missing something? Let me know, huh? Let’s debate this. While we still can debate it…
A month later, in August 2011, I had another look at what was going on in space and posted the following blog. Oh, and the title of this is once again inspired by the Golden Age American science fiction writer, Robert A Heinlein. So here we go –
Have Spacesuit, Will. Travel [28th August 2011]
I began this yesterday morning, but quickly realised that I’d got things wrong and needed to re-think my stance on this. What with Amy’s birthday celebrations, I decided not to post what I had but to return to it today, so here we go with the ever-evolving thoughts of Chairman Wingrove on the way this world of ours is heading.
I was looking last night (Friday night, that is) at China, the USA and their futures in space. Also reading up on the role Robert Anson Heinlein took in bringing NASA into existence. I’ll come to the latter in a while, but it really has seemed to me that NASA have been trying very hard to place a propagandist spin on what’s happened to them; to try and be optimistic and buoyant when the truth is they’ve been hit hard by Obama’s debilitating cuts – a tendency that is best demonstrated, I feel, in their Mars programme (ironically named … wait for it … RED DRAGON!)
First off, it’s a non-manned programme. In fact, don’t expect any manned programmes for some while. But it’s well-advanced, Later this year (it’s been announced) they’re going to launch MSL, the “Mars Science Laboratory”, a component part of which will be the “Curiosity rover” which (once it’s there) will travel about on the Martian surface looking for signs of microbial life.
Okay… hang on … how are they going to even launch this stuff, let alone get it to Mars unless they’ve got rockets too? Well, that’s where the fledgling new space companies come into it. So take a bow SpaceX who are busy developing the ‘Dragon’ spacecraft (Falcon 1 and Falcon 9). And they’re not the only private corporation vying for these NASA-vacated roles in space. Far from it.
There’s also Bigelow Aerospace & Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines Ltd, Interorbital Systems, Starchaser Industries, Lockheed Martin, Beal Aerospace, Scorpius, Masten Space Systems and dozens more.
SpaceX, however, seem to be out front right now. They’re busy developing a “heavy lift” rocket they’re calling “Falcon Heavy” that will (by using two Falcon 9 boosters) be able to boost fifteen tons into LEO (low earth orbit). Space X seem to me right now to be the most ambitious of all these new private space companies that are springing up in the face of the recent de-regularisation of space. With NASA’s help they want to have a fledgling colony on the moon by 2020. And it seems – from the fact that President Obama made a point of visiting them personally – that they’ll be the ones to inherit NASA’s mantle.
When did this happen? When did America’s space programme go commercial? And what effect is this going to have on the future of space exploration?
Well, I’ve no accurate source on this, but it all seems to have started sometime between 2003 and 2007, though the news that NASA were having their budgets slashed and half the staff given early retirement, seems to have accelerated the process – alongside the fact that there are a lot of American technicians (and space entrepreneurs) who want to beat the Chinese to the big prizes. – which, as of now, are the Moon and Mars. All those companies I listed are benefitting from the fact that a lot of highly-intelligent and equally higher-experienced space technicians are now on the market. All they need is money and – strangely enough – it seems that it’s China they are going to get it. A report from China News dated the 16th of August this year, reveals that the US Company Space Adventures is asking $150 million a ticket for special Moon tours, and it’s China’s new billionaires that are being targeted.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are also in the frame as far as selling tickets for a holiday on the moon. However, this space tourism aspect of things – which currently catches all of the press headlines – seems to me to be much more of a gimmick than the real future for any of these companies. If they’re going to make money for their investors, it’ll probably be through spin-off technologies, or – longer term – through setting up mining operations on the Moon.
Things are changing very fast right now. And it seems that maybe the Chinese aren’t going to get their own way in space, because there’s still a lot of national pride involved on the part of the USA, and those technicians and engineers who have moved from NASA to the privately-funded space industry, want to keep ahead of the game – and ahead of China.
But you know what the strangest aspect of all this is? It strikes me that we’re suddenly and totally unexpectedly, in exactly the kind of position posited by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, way back in the forties. Go back and read those books. People talk about Arthur C. Clarke being a great generator of ideas, but listen to this quote, from Remembering The Space Age, listing Heinlein’s direct contribution to society and spaceflight –
“The website http://technovelgy.com attributes 120 (so far) inventions, novel devices (e.g. the waterbed), and neologisms (e.g. “freefall” and “grok”) to Robert A. Heinlein. An incomplete list of just some of his space-related ideas includes: various electromagnetically-levitated transport systems, also known as “mass drivers”, a hands-free helmet, the “parking” orbit, a space shuttle, stealth, and the gravity slingshot manoeuver.”
And this is to leave out properly-functioning modern spacesuits, which Heinlein came up with in his short story, ‘Misfit’ back in 1940.
When, after Pearl Harbour, Heinlein was head-hunted by the aeronautical factory at the Philadelphia Navy Yard; he, in turn, recruited Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp to join him and help him out. After the war, in 1947, Heinlein wrote the first of his juvenile SF novels, Rocketship Galileo, the ideas from which formed the foundations for movie producer George Pal’s collaborative film with Heinlein, Destination Moon in 1950.
To quote again from Remembering The Space Age –
“It is surely no accident that, a decade after Rocket Ship Galileo and the whole series of juvenile novels that inspired millions of people who were teenagers in 1947-1959, legions of young professionals were ready to answer the challenge of Sputnik and to choose technical careers, entering the workface just as the space race began.”
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that NASA grew, if you like, out of Heinlein’s head and his story-lines. Without Heinlein? ,,, Well, who knows? But I’d bet a small fortune that the moon-landing of 1969 would never have happened. Not for another ten or twenty years, anyway.
So here we are again, stuck back in the Forties and with exciting times ahead. And who is going to grab the big prizes, the West or China?
I’d like to say both, that space can be shared by the human species, not colonized by nations, but there’s not a lot of evidence right now that that’ll happen. NASA and he American space industry isn’t being allowed to talk to the Chinese, for fear that the Chinese will steal some of our secrets. And maybe that’s true. Only another space race – once it’s really underway –
Could well prove a flash-point between America and China, and maybe the two ought to be to know about – at least, not yetin space with Russia, surely it can do so with China? And India come to that. But look, let me know your thoughts about this. I want to know more about the private space companies and whether they’re the answer. Whether inventiveness and pure entrepreneurial drive is going to be enough against Chinese State planning.
One month later I was at it again, sat in the sunlit garden at home, blogging for the third time on the subject –
The Race For Space – Take Three [Tuesday 27th September 2011]
I’ve already raised this subject twice before now, but I want to go back to it, because as a China watcher and a big science fiction fan (and don’t we just love our rockets!) this is an area where the future is unfolding here and now. It’s also an area where my personal knowledge of what’s going on is clearly suspect. I can report back only what’s already being reported in the media. I’m sure that there’s a lot going on that we’ll not be hearing about for some while. Developments which – because of the nature of this new ‘space race’ between China and the USA, much of which involves cyber-infiltration (mainly by China) of so-called secure sites – the companies involved don’t want anyone to know about … Not just yet, anyway.
In two previous blogs – ‘100 Days’ and ‘Have Spacesuit Will Travel’ – I had a first look at what was happening in this vein, as well as trying to get to grips with what it would mean for us all, here on Planet Earth.
It is, to my mind, the single biggest thing that’s happening right now. More important than global economics and bigger even than genetic developments. Because what we’re ultimately talking about is getting off this tiny little planet of ours and spreading out into the stars. Yeah, okay, I told you I was a science fiction nut. But that doesn’t stop it from being true. Our long term future is being decided even as I write this.
Nor is what I’m talking about something that’s going to happen in ten or twenty years’ time – it is happening right now. In fact, depending on the weather, it all kicks off on Thursday this week (or Friday) when China launches their Tiangong-2 module, the first piece of what will ultimately be a fully-functional space station.
And while the Chinese are busy doing that, news has come in that the International Space Station, built by the Americans and now run by the Russians since NASA lost interest, could be abandoned by November this year.
Okay. Well, let me begin by referring you to something you may have missed, but that happened only four days ago (on the 23rd September 2011); something which is incredibly significant. At a Congressional hearing in Washington, Neil Armstrong (first man to walk on the moon) stated that in his opinion “NASA is a national disgrace.” He went on to add that the US space programme “is embarrassing and unacceptable”. And, commenting on the overall situation, he said: “Our choices are to lead, to try to keep up, or to get out of the way. A lead, however earnestly and expensively won, once lost, is nearly impossible to regain.”
From a man of Armstrong’s stature that’s quite damning. And, before him, we’ve had Buzz Aldrin expressing his acute disappointment with the US Administration’s attitude towards space. Both men have commented on the mediocrity which is the US space programme, and you have the feeling that they, perhaps, ought to know. I mean, where’s the ambition, the pride, the “right stuff” as they used to call it.
I’ll tell you where. China.
While the US is bickering over budgets and the politics of the thing, the Chinese are getting on with it. Snubbed by the US when they tried to join in with Russia and America on the ISS (International Space Station) the Chinese are building their own, smaller version, and their scheme to put men on Mars within the next twenty years is more convincing than any put forward by any of the new private space corporations in the USA, if only because they have the kind of progressive step-by-step programme (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) that the USA had back in the sixties and seventies with such spectacular results.
The Chinese will get things wrong. They’ll suffer set-backs and a few tragedies. But that’s to be expected. It’s a high-risk strategy, going into Space. Yet only by doing it will they get the experience and knowledge to take the next step and the next after that. Compared to which …
Okay. I’m back to my starting position. I think the US has turned its back on space. Manned flights aren’t even on the agenda right now. They’re sending up Lego astronauts. Whereas the Chinese – for all that they began this race at the very back of the chasing pack – are now, it seems to me, out there on their own. And who would you put your money on to win?
I tell you, if I was native Chinese right now, I’d be as proud as punch at what my country was doing as far as space is concerned. This is their sixties. Their moment of flowering. Like America coming out of the era of McCarthyism into the bright, day-glo years that followed. It must be great being young and Chinese right now. When Tiangong-1 gets launched at the end of the week, just watch how they’ll celebrate, And it’s certainly something that should be celebrated, because sending up that eight and a half ton space lab is the beginning of a whole new phase of their programme, which – by 2020 – will have a fully-functional space station in orbit about the earth and a manned moon-shot to follow.
I’m not going to prolong this. I just wanted to set down how my thoughts on this matter have been fluctuating. I wish I could get a really good, up-to-date book on the subject, but as it is I’m having to rely on blog sites like O’Neil’s SPACE, which seems to cover a very broad spectrum of topics.
Okay. That’s it.
A little more than a week passed – a week that saw the launch of Tiangong-1 – and I was at it again, blogging on what’s become my favourite. Anyway, here’s what I had to say –
Tiangong Days! [Friday 7th October 2011]
Okay. It’s official. The Chinese have entered the space race big time. When did this happen? Last week. Last Thursday the 29th September at 9.16 Beijing time (1316 GMT) to be precise. And what exactly did they launch? Tiangong-1 or ‘Heavenly Palace’. The 8.5 tonne space lab module was launched on top of a Long March 2F rocket. Before the year’s end it’ll be joined up there, orbiting at 340 kilometres above the earth, by an un-manned Shenzou-8 spacecraft.
And before the moment passes, let me refer you back to a little thing I wrote and had published back in 1989 – yep, as long ago as that, twenty two years ago now – called THE MIDDLE KINGDOM, where – on page one! – I have Li Shai Tung stariung down at the earth – at Chung Kuo as it was re-named – from his orbital palace (called Tongjiang, by the way, just in case you missed the symmetry of life and art ) 160,000 li (Chinese miles, that is) above the earth.
Well, blimey guv (as Dick Van Dyke might have said) you sure gort that lone right, didn’t yet now?
But to be serious for a moment. We are living through historic times. Only our news stations (Sky News in particular) aren’t really paying attention. They’d rather have their cameras staring into court room in the Michael Jackson trial – which, for me, is like watching paint dry – than chart the handing over of the mantle of top dog from one empire to another.
Yes, I’m back on that subject again, But what got me really thinking about it was the music the official Chinese TV people played while the big Long March 2 rocket split the sky – wait for this, it’s a classic!
America the Beautiful.
Now, mistake or deliberate snub, it did catch the attention of a lot of commentators, who view this, as I do, as a great shaming of the USA. Cheeky buggers those Chinese. Playing our song while they take over our skies! I bet they were laughing down their silken sleeves. And if they were? Well, for once I applaud them for getting on with the job while those squabbling big noses in America (the ‘Land Without Ghosts’ as the Han like to call it) fight over budgets and try and put a new space programme together out of bits and pieces made here there and everywhere, as NASA – one of the boldest ventures ever undertaken by Mankind – slowly fades into a memory.
Yeah, I know. I fluctuate over this. But month by month the Chinese stride onward, while we in the West … well, it seems to me that without some form of overall direction, we’re going to fall behind month by month. I mean, the Chinese haven’t got the technical expertise (or experience) of the Russians and Americans, but they’re improving rapidly and taking great strides. As in everything else, they’re doing all the same things we once used to do … only speeded up. That’s the nature of this new dragon that’s rising in the east – it’s learning its lessons very fast and, when it makes mistakes, putting them right pretty damn quickly.
Well, a lot of people involved in the US space program are rankled by the whole thing. They’re ashamed of their country’s efforts in space, even as the Chinese are feeling a massive national pride at what they’re doing.
Think about it. How are we ever going to compete long term when we feel that way? What’s needed is some brash, aggressive self-confidence … Only that seems to have leaked away, to be replaced by a whining apologetic rhetoric (repeated ad nauseam) about us not being able to afford it. As if we were ten times poorer than China rather than ten times as rich. I mean… what the fuck is going on?
Oh, we can’t go into space because we’ve got to spend the money on health care …
Well, yes, you have. Then take it from somewhere else. But take it. And spend it on getting out there into space again. Because space IS the future for Mankind. The Chinese are showing us that, and we damn well ought to be listening and catching up with them, not steadily falling behind.
What’s making things worse is the fact that China alone of the super powers currently has an active manned spaceflight programme. With the moth-balling of the shuttle, America is out of the race, and what with the spectacular failure of the Russian Progress 44 rocket back at the end of August this year – the supply rocket (with 2.9 tons of supplies for the space station) crashing in eastern Russia only five minutes after launch – it seemed likely that they’ll be organising for the current crew of the space station to be ferried back to earth before too much longer, though a recent report suggests that they’ll be sending a manned Soyuz capsule in November
But it’s certainly a set back, not a leap forward.
In fact, that’s probably what impresses me most about the Chinese space programme; that it has forward momentum, whereas the American and Russian equivalents appear to have ground to an evolutionary halt. If you want a stronger sense of what I mean, go and watch the epic film, The Right Stuff again, and glory in the sheer attitude of those times, and wonder where the fuck it went. We need something of that spirit back. And now, not ten years from now, when it’ll be altogether too late.
America the Beautiful … Give the Chinese official who decided to play that a big gold star, for cheek alone!
And one more, darker than the rest – and then an update – to fill you in with what’s been happening over the last six years. But first this – the last of the five blogs I wrote in 2011.
China’s Militarization of Space [Monday 10th October 2016]
This is going to be a tough one to write without creating a sense of paranoid fantasy, because what I’m going to talk about touches on some of our most primal fears for the future. And about whether, even as we’re taking the first steps toward leaving our planet in greatest of all diasporas, we might not just blow the whole of the human race into dust clouds in the process.
So. Bear with me. I’m rehearsing these ideas. They’re not my final thoughts on the matter by any means. That would just be foolish.
And before we get to the detail, let’s ask one thing. Who is actually running the Chinese space programme?
In a lot of ways you could say that the Chinese are just copying what’s gone before, For instance, their Long March rockets are based on Russia’s Soyuz rockets, and their whole space programme is very much modelled on what America did back in the sixties and seventies; particularly in the way it’s been developed almost entirely under the wing of their air force.
Their very first taikonaut – the Chinese equivalent of an astronaut – was People’s Liberation Army Lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei, who was previously a fighter pilot. And, according to Chinese press reports, the taikonaut corps consisted of 12 trainees and two trainers, all of them PLA fighter pilots. Sound familiar?
Yang Liwei is, for the Chinese, what Yuri Gagarin was to the Soviets back in the day. As the first Chinese man into space, every Han schoolboy wants to be like him. Remember how that felt?
That was back in October 2003, and two years later to the day, in 2005 they sent another two taikonauts up into space on a five day mission.
We’ve talked elsewhere about what the Chinese have announced that they’re planning in space – the space station, the lunar landing and, a long way down the line, a man on Mars (or maybe more) What we haven’t discussed so far is what the bulk of their space research – and their scheduled launches – seems to be aimed at.
Yeah, you read that right. That’s what the Chinese are claiming they’re doing. At least, that’s what General Xu Qi Kiang, the PLA air force commander, stated in an interview back in November 2009. They’re building up their military capacity in space – both defensive and aggressive – to make sure of peace. Because, as the General says, “The Chinese people are a peace-loving people and China is a responsive developing country which upholds a national defence policy that is defensive in nature.”
Well, yeah, a defence policy ought to be …defensive. And we know that the Chinese always mean what they say, don’t we?
Only a number of military journalists don’t see eye to eye with General Xu when it comes to this matter. Let me quote from The Digital Journal –
“Contrary to its stated position of the militarization of space, China is fast developing a network of advanced satellites that will track hostile forces and guide ballistic missiles in real time to intended targets.”
The same article goes on to say –
“The most immediate and strategically disquieting application (of reconnaissance satellites) is a targeting and tracking capability in support of rhe anti-ship ballistic missile, which could hit US carrier groups.”
And it’s interesting to see that China has learned its lessons from what happened to both Britain and the USA as far as overseas commitment is concerned –
“With space as the backbone, China will be able to expand the range of its ability to apply force while preserving its policy of not establishing foreign military bases.”
And just in case you don’t get the message, this is General Xu Qi Liang once again, forgetting for a moment what he’ just said about peace and the defensive nature of their defence policy, and spelling out instead just why the Chinese are currently prioritizing space above all other matters military –
“The competition between military forces is moving towards outer space … this is a historical inevitability and a development that cannot be turned back … The air force will extend its reach from the sky to space, from defence of Chinese territory to attack of threats as well. We will improve the overall capacity to strike a long-distance target with high precision…fight electronic or internet warfare with back-up from space … and deliver our military strategic assets.”
Way to go, General Xu! That said, our friend the chief of China’s airforce sounds just a little like his cousins in the Pentagon when the sound off on the subject. So let’s not be too critical.
And here’s a brief quote from Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, back in 1961 –
“Control of space means control of the world.”
Now let’s dwell on this a moment. It has long been a feature of Military campaigns to capture and keep the high ground. Victory that way lies. And when aircraft came along in the twentieth century, “command of the air” became a key strategic concept. And then, when the militarization of space began in the 1960s, it in its turn became the key, giving decisive military advantage. Space had become the high ground. And remains so. There ain’t much higher you can get, after all.
And right now China is sending up at least ten, sometimes twelve satellites a year to increase its ‘defence’ capacity. These aside from the ones they give so much publicity to – the ‘peaceful’ ones which fall under the umbrella of their Project 921, which aims to get men – Chinese men, that is – into space.
And year by year – especially now that NASA has folded and the Russian space programme is no longer being funded by a State anxious to ‘keep up’ with its Cold War – China’s presence in space grows while that of its rivals diminishes. And that way madness lies … for us, anyway. Because we cannot afford to be in a position where we are dominated from space by a Chinese leadership set on controlling their citizens by controlling our communications and thus our societies.
Because whoever holds the high ground wins the game.
I’ll return to this another time, when I’ve had a chance to look a bit deeper at some of the aspects involved. But for now the whole thing worries me. Why? Because I can’t be sure that China is our friend. And if we can’t be sure of that …
In winding up, let me make it clear. There are no actual weapons in space, and no one has yet been killed in a war in space. But … the future is the future. It won’t be the same as the past. And out history is filled with wars and flashpoints and nations vying to be the best, the most powerful, the rulers rather than the ruled. And Chinese history is no different. Ten years from now, I’m sure, we’ll see it all much clearer, but for now – as I’ve said before – I have the feeling that we are sleep-walking into the future. A future that will find us unprepared.
And that was it, last time out. But what’s been happening since then? Which way are things heading? Are the Chinese still ploughing mountains of money into their space programme? And what of China’s rivals in space – the USA, Russia and India – are they still in the race at all? Let’s look. Let’s see just where we are. But to start off, let’s look at the new ‘home’ of spaceflight, officially called the China Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, the first launch from which took place successfully at 20.00 on June 25th 2016, with twenty five thousand native Chinese onlookers cheering the big Long March rocket on from the public viewing platforms, like a crowd at a football game.
The recent construction of the massive Wenchang facility marks a whole new phase of China’s ambitions in space. Since 1984 the focal point of their space programme had been the Xichang facility in Sichuan province, hiding away deep inland where prying foreign eyes can’t see. But Xichang had huge disadvantages when it came to launching heavy craft, such as the new Long March 7 rockets, particularly in terms of transporting the massive rockets to the base, along narrow inland roads, and through tunnels and over bridges, whereas Hainan is easily accessible by sea.
And not merely that. Wenchang, by comparison, was built to take advantage of the site’s proximity to the equator. Built at a latitude of 19 degrees north, Wenchang’s situation allows it to take advantage of the kick from the earth’s rotation, not to speak of the bigger payload per unit of fuel this will permit.
This shift to the Wenchang site was a radical step forward for the Chinese, both technically and in terms of openness. It’s a declaration that the Chinese mean business. Oh, their spending overall doesn’t match that of the US government, who, back in 2013, were still ploughing $40 billion a year into their space exploration budget, compared to the $13 billion spent by China over the same period, but the Chinese are talking about tripling the budget for scientific missions, and China analysts in the Pentagon are concerned – to quote – “that China is hitting the accelerator as NASA hits the breaks.”
So what do the Chinese have planned for the next five years?
Well, to start with, and after more than twenty years of planning, they have built the world’s largest radio telescope in Guizhou, a 500-meter-wide dish (ie. as big as thirty soccer pitches) which cost $180 million and which can receive signals from as far as 13.7 billion light years away. It’s their ‘Eye In The Sky’ which, they claim, will let them see any aliens before they see us!
They’ve also got their Aolong craft, designed, so they say, for the collection of space debris, but which most China-watchers see as China’s attempt to create the means by which the West’s satellites can be taken off-line in the eventuality of war. In fact, their one and only use of the Aolong was to blow up one of their own satellites, scattering more than 3000 pieces of space junk in the orbit of various US satellites.
At the same time they’ve been developing the world’s fastest super-computer to run all of this stuff. Such as? Well, alongside the above they have spent a small fortune building their home grown Beidou navigation network (with 35 satellites and at a cost of $810 million) as an alternative to the US-run Global Positioning System.
They’re also busy building – at incredible cost – their own space station, which they hope to have up and running (with crew) by 2024. Then, quite separately, they plan to put a ‘rover’ on Mars in the same time-period and, as soon as 2018 – yes, next year! – they intend to land on the far side of the Moon
Okay, so let’s pause there. The far side of the moon? What’s the point of that?
Well, I’m not making this up, but there’s this stuff called helium-3, a light and non-radioactive fusion fuel that is virtually non-existent here on Earth. Because the Moon lacks an atmosphere and has been bombarded by solar winds containing helium-3 for billions of years, the moon has massive volumes of this isotope. Some estimates suggest there are at least 1.1 million metric tons of helium-3 on the lunar surface – enough to power human energy needs for up to 10,000 years.
Free energy for 10,000 years eh? Pipe-dreams, some will say. But we’re moving slightly away from the subject of this blog. China and the militarization of space. We’ve already mentioned the Chinese dual-usage of all aspects of their space programme. But let’s look at President Xi Jinping’s view on all of this. I mean, he’s the head honcho. It’s his thumb on the button.
What Ji Xinping believes is that the so-called Chinese ‘Space Dream’ which everyone shares – and for once I believe it’s true – is to make China stronger. A report claims that along with its civilian space programme, China continues to develop a variety of capabilities designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict, including the development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers. Like shutting down our SatNav system for a start.
Or, as Xi JingPing says – “Space warfare is inevitable, and China must dominate it.”
Okay. So let’s wind things down this time out. A report on NBC analysing the situation concluded that:
“Despite being decades behind the US space program, China is clearly catching up and using what Chinese experts call ‘the latecomer’s advantage’ – exploiting the latest technologies to leapfrog space advancements.”
I might be wrong. China might not be developing all of this stuff over a broad spectrum for reasons other than making war on us, but I don’t know. I seriously don’t know. Their invitation to share knowledge with smaller nations – including Russia and Europe – seems generous compared to the USA’s ban on any form of collaboration with China. But it might just be a placating gesture, designed to hide their true intensions. Only time will tell.