Beyond the Great Wall

by Walter Cunningham  

Their lavish hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, followed by a recent spaceflight, underscores a very real fact: China is bent on succeeding in space, all the way to Mars. And America had better pay attention.

Fifty years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created to stake a claim on the Space Age and the future. Eleven years later Americans had landed on the Moon and we were recognized as the preeminent spacefaring nation of the world. That investment in technology powered the American economy for at least three decades.

Today, the lunar landings are pretty much taken for granted.

In September, the Chinese launched three men on a three-day mission that included a 20-minute EVA. That Shenzhou 7 mission garnered rave reviews from the media, who perceived it as a grand accomplishment for human spaceflight. After all, wasn’t it just their third mission, and it took place only five years after their first man in space?

The Chinese program has the benefit of starting high on the learning curve. They can afford to skip some of the steps. They benefit from the lessons learned by both the Americans and the Russians 40 and 50 years ago. They do not have to develop answers to questions such as, Can man survive in space? What are the system requirements to keep him alive? Man in the loop or automatic systems? What is the best reentry profile? All questions we asked and answered 45 years ago.


A commemorative stamp folder issued by the Chinese government to honor their first spacewalk.

No doubt, the Chinese space program is a grand accomplishment for the Chinese. They have taken a methodical, step-by-step approach to flying their “taikonauts.”  Their program plays the same role the Concorde supersonic transport played for the British and French during the Apollo program.

The term, “cosmonaut,” used to describe Russian space travelers, came into our vocabulary almost naturally—a Russian version of “astronaut.” The French “spationaut” seemed a bit tortured but, then again, that’s what you expect from the French. Now “taikonaut” is cropping up in media reports around the world, another sign of China’s growing global influence. From the Chinese word for outer space, “taikonaut” was coined in 1988, when China began to train astronauts. It became well known in 2003 when China sent the Shenzhou-5 spacecraft rocketing into space carrying its first spaceman, Yang Liwei.

But let’s put the recent Chinese space push into context. The Shenzhou spacecraft is an evolved version of the Russian Soyuz capsule, slightly larger and probably slightly better. Likewise, their spacesuits. Yang Liwei, the world’s first taikonaut, was the 430th human to go into space. The 20-minute EVA by taikonaut Zhai Zhigang this past September is roughly comparable to Ed White’s 22-minute walk in space 44 years ago. That’s pretty good separation, if you ask me.

Twenty years after the beginning of their manned program, the Chinese have made only three manned launches, all in the last five years. Launch rate capability is important for a would-be space power, also.

So far, the space community is probably giving the Chinese more acclaim than they deserve. That is not to downplay the difficulty of the technology or the achievements of the Chinese. Does that mean I do not respect them, or that I take their program lightly? Absolutely not! I am very impressed with the future prospects of China’s space program, but for a very different reason.

In August, most of us watched the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. What does this have to do with the future of the Chinese space program? I would describe my reaction to the 2008 opening ceremony in two words.

The first is “awesome.”


Three taikonauts on their way to an historic mission in September.

The opening ceremony was, possibly, the most-watched live event in television history. The only justification for the $40 billion lavished on the event was a Chinese effort to reassert its place in history—and to place a claim on the future. All recent Olympics go over the top on expenditures, but you will not see the likes of that spending in Beijing for a long time to come.

The image projected was of a country rooted in history, yet not trapped there. The displays of Chinese technical achievements—past and present—were beautiful. They included scenes from Chinese history rolling past in movie fashion on a traditional Chinese scroll made of a 480-foot LED screen and human-size movable type—a Chinese invention—that evolved into the computer keyboard.

The artistry and choreography were breathtaking, reflecting the imagination that spawned it; the athleticism and precision were comparable to the Olympics they were introducing; the execution and the technology were matched by their unbridled enthusiasm.

It was a high-precision and high-technology display of conceiving, planning, execution, and commit-ment—the will to do it—all words that described NASA and America in the 1960s. China had the will to do it and they got it right when it counted.

Watching, it didn’t take long for the second word to find voice: “frightening!”

The Chinese were saying in a loud voice to the entire world, We can do whatever we set our mind to. This (the opening ceremony) was accomplished by our system of government and our way of life. It was a gauntlet thrown down to the world, and it got my attention!

It was deja vu, all over again. It was analogous to the gauntlet thrown down by President Kennedy when he told the world, We will land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth in this decade. The successful landing on the Moon gave notice that America could do whatever it set its mind to.

You could also read into that opening ceremony, Don’t on their way to an historic mission try to tell us how to run our country, or what we should be doing about human rights, or individual freedom, or choice, etc. We will do what we want in this world and no other nation can do anything about it.

China certainly got what it paid for. The 2008 Olympics brought tremendous credibility to China. Now, when they say, We will put a man on the Moon by 2024, I believe it. A 2024 landing on the Moon would come 55 years after Neil Armstrong left his footprints there and 50 years after the start of their own space program. Such a landing will not satisfy Chinese aspirations any more than the recent 20-minute EVA did, coming 45 years after man’s first “walk in space.”

We have looked at China as a nation with a huge population and a long and fascinating history, but it is beginning to be perceived as a leading technological power with bright young engineers and young ideas. Their technological development has been progressing in a consistent fashion. The average age of engineers in the Shenzhou program is 36; the median age for engineers in the American space program is over 50. In the Chinese lunar program, it is 33. In another 10–20 years, China will have an immense pool of aerospace engineers with more experience than their American counterparts.

Since the Chinese program is mostly secret, we are resigned to speculating about it. They say just enough to fuel our speculation about their plans of sending sophisticated satellites and spacecraft into orbit, and I assume they have a large and capable lunar program, probably equal to our own.

A successful space program showcases the technical prowess of a country, and in this case, provides the communist leadership a platform to maintain the popularity gained by staging a successful Olympics. It also helps to distract China’s 1.3 billion people from serious economic and social concerns.

China will, eventually, suffer setbacks and even lose people, as both the U.S. and Russia have, but it will not deter them. The Chinese think long-term; they do not have to satisfy a short-term constituency.

Don’t be fooled by the slow, deliberate pace of the Chinese program to date. We need to focus on what it would take for the world to acknowledge Chinese preeminence in space.

The next Holy Grail in space is Mars. Mars is the only place we can reach where questions on the origin and evolution of life, and whether we can live on other worlds, can be addressed. I believe the Chinese have set their sights on landing the first man on Mars, or another body in the solar system, an accomplishment
that would accrue benefits to their economy for generations.

Countries with the capability see their space programs as an important symbol of their international stature and economic development. America has been at the pinnacle for a long time, but our long-held superiority in exploring and commercializing “the final frontier” is slipping away. And it looks like it will get worse before it gets better.

While our superiority is diminishing, other major space powers—China, Russia, and the EU—are expanding both civilian and commercial space capabilities at a much faster pace. We are losing ground not because of what they are doing, but because of what we have stopped doing. What will it take to get the U.S. to recommit to remaining the preeminent spacefaring nation in the world?

I have preached for a very long time that it takes three things to accomplish apparently impossible projects—the technology, the resources, and the will to do it. We plainly have the first two, but do we have the will?

In the 1960s, the world was tuned to the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The race to the Moon was one battle in that Cold War. Today, the global competition in space is being driven by national pride, and the confidence that achievements in space will bring substantial economic and military benefits.

While the United States continues to make incremental progress in space, our global rivals have been taking the giant steps that once defined NASA. After a recent tour of the Chinese space program, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said, “They’re investing [in space] to make China a strategic world power second to none—not so much to become a grand military power, but because deals and advantages flow to world leaders.”

Chinese leadership may eventually have to face the question of how much they are willing to pay for prestige but, for now, I think they are looking past the Moon and putting their sights on Mars.

America has no choice but to find the will—and the money—to make a long-term commitment to remain number one in space, and must do so in spite of problems with terrorism, entitlements, and the economy. Otherwise, space will become the province of nations that do have the will—nations like China and Russia—whose self-interest is in conflict with ours. If that happens, we will not only lose the lead in space exploration but also the technological advantage that has contributed so much to our standing as the leading nation of the world.