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Common Cents

The new space race?

Ralph Murphy

(1/2014) The Chinese landing of roving vehicle Yutu in early December was met with interest and trepidation by the international community who appeared worried about the event's earthly implications, particularly as it relates to military technology applications. China's space program is nothing new, nor is travel to the moon as the Americans have walked on it since the 1960's. What is of current concern is how China, largely alone in developing its own space technology, will use it.

The successful unmanned moon landing as a world event is largely eclipsed by the Americans two actively working vehicles currently traversing Mars. The "Opportunity" and the "Curiosity" have been sending pictures and data since their respective landings on the red planet in January of 2004 and August of 2012. That after about a six month flight from earth. Total cost for the Curiosity was placed at 2.5 billion dollars. These successful endeavors were preceded by other American rovers as early as the American Viking probes in 1976 which sent back over 4500 pictures from that planet's surface.

From its inception China's space program has been belligerent. Concerned by the American threat of atomic weapons use in Korea, China under Mao sought a deterrent with missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Russia aided the program at its inception with the "Fifth Academy of National Defense Ministry" founded in 1956, leading to the Ballistic Missile Program and subsequent 12 year plan for Chinese aerospace.

The Soviet Union provided China with R-2 weapons technology, much of that gleaned from the German V-2 weapons system. China managed to launch a rocket code named the T-7 in 1960, and developed medium range nuclear missiles further that year. The program stalled with frosty relations between China and the USSR under Nikita Khrushchev.

The Peoples Republic of China, or PRC, did manage an experimental rocket in 1964, followed by an ICBM in 1965 with a reported range of 12,000 kilometers. In 1966 a nuclear tipped rocket was launched and detonated over Chinese territory. The missile technology appeared to have been derived from domestic sources, as the Chinese had few external friends, and limited espionage capacity as regards acquiring and successfully using pilfered information.

In 1970 China successfully launched a satellite into space. Unrelated political turmoil followed, but space technology was eventually given a boost with the creation of "China Ministry of Aerospace" in 1988. That same year witnessed the success of a submarine launched missile with a range of over 2000 kilometers.

In October, 2003 the Chinese became the third nation in the world to successfully undertake a manned space flight with three "Taikonauts" completing a 21 hour mission into orbit. That was relatively inoffensive, but followed by a successful October 2007 unannounced destruction of one of that country's orbiting satellites. The resulting space debris was said to have downed a Russian satellite in the area.

The PRC is party to the United Nation's "Committee on Peaceful Use of Outer Space", and hasn't been proven to have violated it. That hasn't kept the U.S. Congress from prohibiting American concerns from working with Chinese state enterprises or entities, and in March of 2013 Congress passed a law requiring a waiver of certain Chinese nationals to enter a NASA facility.

China's relative independence in space development has also made it hard to police. Air Force General William L. Shelton claimed "There's not an operation conducted anywhere at any level that is not somehow dependent on space and cyberspace." He indicated China is strong in areas such as jamming and lasers which are of concern to US security interests. China reportedly continues to develop in those areas of concern with a PRC reported budget of 93 billion dollars a year, but American estimates place at closer to 183 billion dollars.

The PRC launched a module in September of 2011 which that country hopes to be a first step toward a space station about 2020. A three man crew docked with the module, which subsequently fell to earth, but a new one should orbit earth by 2015. That "go it alone" streak is what's worrying governments and private industry with satellites and space tourism goals at stake. The International Space Station (ISS) is due to be decommissioned at about the time the nascent Chinese station would be complete. Another potential source of friction if used as an unchecked base of control for that nation's interests.

USDIA director Lt. General Ronald Burgess claimed "Beijing rarely announces direct applications of its space program, and refers to all satellite launches as scientific in nature." There still haven't been space wars, but unless China and others can be successfully regulated the potential is there for an incident which if sourced could easily spark a costly confrontation on earth.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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