CHINA HAS LAID down a significant marker in its race to catch up and surpass the United States in space: putting humans on Mars by 2033.
Wang Xiaojun, head of the state-owned China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, the country’s leading launch rocket manufacturer, mentioned the target at the Global Space Exploration Conference in St Petersburg earlier this month, adding that China would first have to conduct robotic missions to the red planet before sending taikonauts or building a research base there.
China currently has a robotic space rover, the Zhurong, which landed in May, exploring the planet’s surface.
Wang suggested there would be at least five crewed flights to Mars between 2033 and 2044 and sketched out a possible future string of Chinese space relay stations between Earth and Mars along with an interplanetary cargo fleet enabling large-scale development of the planet. That hints at a sustainable colony and mining.
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also plans to send crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s after returning to the Moon later this decade. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson describes China as a ‘very aggressive space competitor’.
China is still playing catch-up, however. NASA landed its first rover on Mars in 1997 and fifth in February.
In 2011, the US Congress passed a law banning Nasa from working with China in space. That has propelled the Chinese space programme forward at a rapid pace and made it a symbol of self-reliance.
Excluded from the International Space Station (ISS), a collaboration between the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and the EU, China is currently constructing its first permanent space station. The Tianhe’s first three taikonauts arrived about a week ago for a three-month set-up stay.
The space station’s operational life is expected to overlap with establishing a base on the Moon, possibly jointly with the Russians, in the mid-2020s and the start of crewed flights to Mars.
With the ISS due to be decommissioned in the mid-2020s, that could create a situation in which all the space nations except the United States were cooperating with China, for lack of alternatives, although private US companies may have established space stations by then.
Beijing’s ambitious space programme lets the country demonstrate that it is a global scientific leader, show off its technological prowess that can underpin both the state programme and a commercial space industry, and quietly but firmly underline its potential military might in space as space technology is inherently dual-use.
Those are all sources of national pride — and prestige and legitimacy for the Party — and the hallmarks of a superpower. But, equally, they are grounds for suspicion outside China and an extension of US-China terrestrial rivalry into outer space.
The capabilities of Chinese anti-satellite weaponry particularly concern Washington. President Joe Biden has shown no inclination to disband the US’s military’s Space Command and Space Force initiated by his predecessor.
Beijing’s political commitment to human spaceflight is strong, even if it is the most dangerous, challenging and expensive part of China’s space programme while being the militarily least valuable and having the most uncertain long-term commercial benefits. Its priorities could change if the geopolitical context changes.