Reaching Mars would demonstrate that China’s long march into the ranks of the world’s leading space powers is finally complete. Founded in 1956, the Chinese space programme was badly disrupted by Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Its resources were constrained through most of the 1980s, when Deng Xiaping’s reforms focused chiefly on economic development. It was only in the next decade that China started to regard progress in space as strategically vital. The shift was owed partly to the Gulf war of 1991, in which satellite-guided missiles helped bring the American-led coalition to a swift victory. But China’s efforts to learn from other spacefaring nations were often frustrated. A decade-long collaboration that saw dozens of American satellites launched on Chinese rockets was stopped in 1999, after a series of failures and allegations of technology theft. Taikonauts—China’s astronauts or cosmonauts—were never allowed to board the International Space Station (ISS); China’s initial involvement in Galileo, Europe’s global navigation satellite system, went nowhere. As opportunities for collaboration were reduced to a trickle, China doubled down on efforts to develop space technology indigenously. The loss of its first Mars orbiter in 2011, carried by a malfunctioning Russian rocket, confirmed its priority.
From terrestrial observation to human spaceflight, China has since been wildly successful at developing full-spectrum capability. But landing its own spacecraft on Mars would be a coup (a joint Russian-European probe crashed in pursuit of the same goal in October 2016). It would also give China a chance to overtake India, whose first Mars orbiter reached the planet in September 2014. The domestic prestige won by the Communist Party would be enormous, lending credence to president Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”, which calls for the restoration of a lost national greatness. The mission’s scientific purpose is significant too: sniffing the atmosphere of Mars for methane and taking radar images 400 metres below ground. In the longer term, there is consideration for the first human mission to Mars, expected by the mid-2030s. It is expected to be a multinational enterprise, so vast are the technical challenges; a 13-country body already exists to co-ordinate it. China intends to be among its leading lights.
Western powers have long been ambivalent about China’s space programme. Much of the technology it develops can be used for both civil and military purposes and it is closely associated with the People’s Liberation Army. Concerned about technology transfer, America and its allies have largely ducked questions about how to respond to China’s renewed offers of collaboration. They will probably have to make their mind up long before any manned mission to Mars. The first complete Chinese space station is expected to be up and running by 2022, a couple of years before the ISS is due to be decommissioned. China has received the formal blessing of the UN to open up its CSS to countries that lack their own access to space. Failing a rapprochement between the world’s biggest space programmes before then, those two stations, representing nearly two halves of the world below, will be cruising overhead in their own separate orbits.
Published on economist.com