Spaceplanes Boarding Now! Another (Chinese) Sputnik Moment and the X-37B.

This week saw some interesting, almost Sputnik like, discussion of China’s space programme that is well worth reflecting upon.

Firstly, we saw media reports about a looming Chinese space shuttle launch and a hypersonic space plane. I can just imagine the hysteria should the Chinese shuttle fly.

The context is interesting in light of a recent congressional hearing of the House space committee that rather alarmingly, but also rather spuriously, raised the “danger” that the US was locked in a “space race” with China, and that China, moreover, is winning. We’ve, of course, been here before.

The emphasis of China’s space programme, however, is very much tied to its programme of economic modernisation. That is the best way in which to view China’s civilian space activities, rather than in the context of a cold war era style manned space race. This comes across clearly in the analysis of Gregory Kulacki from the Union of Concerned Scientists

Chinese investments in space technology follow the same pattern. The central focus of China’s space program is basic satellite technology, not human spaceflight. China now maintains robust constellations of earth observation, communication, navigation and data relay satellites that serve both civilian and military needs. At the same time China is opening a new space port and a building a new generation of wide-bodied rockets that can carry heavier payloads into space, indicating the rate of increase in the number of functioning Chinese satellites will continue to accelerate.

Of course, China’s space programme has a military dimension to it, but China is well behind the US and the military aspect is best viewed, in my opinion, in the context of broader programmes of military modernisation supporting a strategic posture largely built upon deterrence, especially in the context of “the pivot to Asia.”

Kulacki makes another good point,

China’s human space flight program is just now reaching milestones the United States passed in the 1970s

And, despite all the hoopla about hypersonic space planes, space shuttles and moon shots,

Despite persistent rumors, China has not yet decided to pursue a human lunar mission. For the present, the terminal goal of its human spaceflight program is the construction of a space station in low earth orbit. They’ll be working on achieving that goal for quite awhile. This is something the United States first did in 1973.

This means that there is no “space race” between Washington and Beijing, certainly not so far as concrete Chinese space policy is concerned.

The alarmism on China’s space programme is absurd, but functional. The United States space programme post shuttle could do with a good Keynesian stimulus, especially if the objective is to head out fourth rock from the Sun way, and a little bit of China induced Sputnik mania wouldn’t go astray especially should we be indeed heading into a period of sustained secular stagnation.

Furthermore, the alarmism on China’s space programme serves an important military function.

Discourse that emphasises growing Chinese space capabilities, indeed even the existence of a space race which NASA is losing, provides, in part, the necessary political framework in which the United States can pursue the weaponisation of space. The Chinese, as has the United States, have tested ASAT weapons but China is far more dependent upon its space capabilities to wage large scale military operations “under high technology conditions” than is the United States. As such China has far more to lose from a space arms race than does the US, which provides an opportunity to achieve security in space through arms control.

Interestingly enough, whilst all this was going down we hear, but only by those nerdy enough to follow these things, that

The US Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane has now spent more than 500 days orbiting the Earth, without statement or explanation.


Experts speaking with Air and Space Magazine in 2015 generally concurred. Any technology the Air Force is testing on its spaceplane must have military applications, the magazine noted, possibly for communications, navigation, surveillance or anti-satellite and counter-anti-satellite operations.

So there you have it.