China’s space program hit a huge milestone last week with the launch of its Long March-5 rocket from the new Wenchang Space Launch Center, the nation’s fourth launch site. This new heavy-lift booster gives China a rocket that is equaled in power only by the US Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle: about 25 metric tons to low-Earth orbit (LEO).
China deserves credit for creating a space development plan in 1992, called Project 921, and then following through with it. Initially the Chinese space program was derided as highly derivative of Russia’s launch program, but, with the new family of Long March rockets that use modern design and propellants such as refined RP-1 kerosene and liquid hydrogen, China must now be regarded as a world-class space power.
At present only two nations can put humans safely into space: Russia and China. Additionally, only two nations can put medium-sized payloads into space, the United States and China. Only one nation can do both. Payload and crewed launch capabilities will allow China to build a modular space station during the next decade that will invite visitors from Europe and elsewhere and will almost certainly outlast NASA’s International Space Station.
While China has focused on a space station and has not yet set a definitive timeline for going into deep space, it must be noted that the country now has the capacity to mount a human mission to the Moon, if it so chooses. The Long March-5 rocket is powerful enough to stage an Earth orbit for landings on the Moon and to push a payload of about eight metric tons into a Lunar transfer orbit (LTO).
“By launching and rendezvousing four of those in low Earth orbit, it would be possible for the Chinese to construct a manned lunar mission with no more than that rocket and no more than Apollo technology,” former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told the House Science, Space, and Technology committee in September, 2011. “And I’ve—I have in fact, in the past, written up how that mission would work from an engineering perspective. So with the Long March-5, the Chinese inherently possessed the capability to return to the Moon should they wish to do so.”
Five years after Griffin made those comments, the Long March-5 rocket has now flown, proving China’s capability to design a large rocket around its new YF-100 engines. China has now set its sights on development of the Long March-9, a super-heavy lift rocket in the class of the Apollo program’s Saturn V rocket. This powerful rocket likely remains about 15 years from its debut and is projected to have a payload-to-LEO capacity of at least 130 metric tons and a payload-to-LTO capacity of at least 50 metric tons.
Chinese strides in space come amidst uncertainty about America’s launch efforts. While the US should regain the capability to launch US astronauts in late 2018 or 2019 thanks to NASA’s decision to fund SpaceX and Boeing, it’s not clear where the space agency will go after that. NASA is deep into building its own super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which has about three times the lift capacity as the Long March-5 and should fly late in this decade. But there is no clear plan in place for its use—and even if NASA had announced specific plans, those plans likely will be scrambled by the next president of the United States.
This uncertainty comes as the United States finds itself in a messy transition from a state-run space program to a—potentially—more commercial one. The rise of China’s space program offers an interesting contrast between socialism and capitalism in space. From the beginnings of NASA through the early 2000s, America had a largely socialistic approach to space exploration. Ironically, it was the centralized, top-down Apollo program that helped to show the world that the democratic and capitalistic United States was superior to the Soviet Union in outer space, while the Soviet Union’s own space race was largely run by independent, competing design bureaus.
But with the rise of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other US-based rocket companies, the United States now has an opportunity to embrace a much more fully capitalistic approach to spaceflight. Both companies are also developing super-heavy lift rockets, the Falcon Heavy and New Glenn respectively, that will have lift capacity roughly on par with NASA’s Space Launch System. Some officials, such as former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, have noted the incoherence of a centralized, big government rocket program trying to compete with private companies. For now, though, Congress seems content to stick with the Apollo model of a centralized government program.
Even as lawmakers do so, it is worth considering that the United States could go back to the Moon within the next decade, too, even without waiting for SpaceX or Blue Origin. Just as the Long March-5 is powerful enough to land humans on the Moon, so too is the privately developed Delta IV Heavy rocket, manufactured by United Launch Alliance in Alabama.
It remains unclear whether the United States will retain its centralized approach to space exploration, or even if the vast savings promised by privately developed rocket companies will eventually convince skeptical lawmakers in Congress to abandon a big-government approach to rocket building. While Washington sorts that out, we can rest assured that China will continue to make progress toward its own spaceflight goals.
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