If the weather holds, China plans to celebrate another milestone on its long march to the moon this week in a PR extravaganza that will rival its Olympic performance a few weeks ago. Fittingly, a Long March II-F rocket will take off from the Jiuquan launch center in Gansu province carrying three astronauts on China's third mission to low Earth orbit. After a live broadcast of the launch and heartwarming made-for-TV linkups between the crew and their families, the ruggedly handsome Zhai Zhigang will open the hatch and emerge into outer space. It will be China's first spacewalk and another step in its ambitious plan to build its own space station by 2015 and—if the rumors are true—to put astronauts on the moon by 2020.
The display will no doubt be lauded as yet another indication that China is ready to join the ranks of the world's space titans, Russia and the United States. But are these missions cause for worry in Washington and Moscow? The Soviet Union performed the first spacewalk in 1965 when Aleksei Leonov stepped out of a Voskhod II capsule, and the United States did it later that year when Ed White left his Gemini capsule. Although the ability to launch payloads can also be used to lob bombs, the military implications of a manned program are virtually nil: nobody has yet figured out what humans can do in space that robotic weapons can't do better.
China sees its spacewalk as a way of proving that it belongs with the United States and Russia in the top tier of space-faring nations. But its true opponent in this space race is not the West so much as its Asian neighbors—India in particular. India has in recent years transformed its space program from a utilitarian affair of meteorological and communications satellites into a hyperactive project that seems designed to make a splash on the world stage. Its robotic-exploration program is scheduled to launch a probe on Oct. 22 that will orbit the moon for two years. And Japan is considering expanding its well-established (if less ambitious) space program—which includes research on the International Space Station and a respectable commercial satellite business—and exploring military applications. Against this backdrop, Beijing's dominance is not unshakable. Just as the Soviet Union's launch of its Sputnik satellite back in 1957 was only a fleeting victory, China's recent accomplishments have provided merely the opening salvos in a modern-day Asian space race.
The two biggest forces driving the race between China and India are their insistence on self-reliance and the idea that space exploration feeds national prestige. Naturally, the two ideas work in tandem. India was shut out from NASA and European space missions for years after testing its first nuclear bomb in 1974; now many technologies for its space program have been developed by Indian engineers with little outside help. (India has agreed to carry U.S. and European payloads on its moon launch.) Beijing has watched U.S.- Russian cooperation on the International Space Station rise and fall with their diplomatic relations. "The most important thing is that China has developed and formed its own system for space aviation independently," says Huang Hai of the China Aviation Science and Research Institute. Ouyang Ziyuan, a space expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, summed it up to People's Daily: China's program "suggests comprehensive national strength …, increasing China's international prestige and the cohesive power of the Chinese nation."
Beijing's space program electrified the competition when astronaut Yang Liwei orbited the earth in October 2003. Last year China shot down an aging weather satellite, adding an arms-race quality to the battle for prestige. It is now constructing its fourth launch base, on Hainan Island, for a new 25-ton booster rocket that will carry aloft modules for its space station, which will be permanently staffed. Also ahead: robotic moon landings (a data-gathering probe is already in orbit) and even a rumored manned trip to the lunar surface—a prospect that provoked a minor crisis in Washington, culminating in President George W. Bush's State of the Union promise in 2004 to establish a permanent U.S. moon base. Despite technology export controls imposed by the United States, China's commercial satellite business is thriving. It has launched 79 satellites altogether—10 of them in 2007. This year India has launched 11 satellites, including nine from other countries—and it became the first nation to launch 10 satellites on one rocket.
The United States and the Soviet Union were racing in the context of a cold war, but India and China are vying for leadership in a competitive marketplace of people and knowledge industries. It's about developing technology, talent and markets. All of which has stimulated Chinese technology: sensors built for space have ended up in GPS systems, washing machines and other products. The Chinese hope to spin out their rockets and orbiters into inventions and products they can patent. And "they're now right up in the world class of robotics," says British scientist Martin Sweeting, CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology, which built Beijing a pollution-monitoring satellite for the Olympics and does work on China's moon rovers.
None of this has gone unnoticed abroad. China's manned space program "shook up all the neighbors because the Chinese asserted, 'We are the dominant regional power'," says Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. After China used a ballistic missile to blow up the aging weather satellite in January 2007, scattering debris into low orbit, Japan's Parliament overturned a law isolating its space program from military uses, and its space agency is trying to capitalize on the new mood by requesting a 29 percent budget increase at a time when the general science budget is growing by only 1 percent per year. The public, however, worries more about the social problems of an aging population than beating China to the moon. As a stable democracy and charter member of the world's most advanced economies, Japan simply has less to prove.
The repercussions of China's program were felt most strongly in Delhi, where the 36-year-old space program is now ramping up its moon project at launch speed. China first sent a man into space in 2003, and India won't achieve that goal until 2015, but according to unofficial schedules, China will beat India to a moon landing by only a year. Reaching the moon is the childhood dream of Madhavan Nair, chairman of India's space program, which is now spending about $1 billion per year, compared with an estimated $2.5 billion a year in China. If all goes well, at the end of October India will launch the $100 million Chandrayaan-I, its first lunar orbiter, using the workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The orbiter will fire a probe at the moon's surface, kicking up a cloud of lunar dust that scientists will analyze from afar—and it will plant the Indian flag in lunar soil. Its successor, Chandrayaan-II, a cooperative effort with Russia (and, therefore, one looked down upon by Chinese analysts), is expected to land a rover on the moon by 2012. The space agency, if it can persuade Parliament to fund all its dreams, aims to put a man on the moon by 2020, followed by robotic missions to Mars, a nearby asteroid and the sun—an agenda even more ambitious than China's.
The Indian space agency is careful to defend the program as more than an ego competition with the Chinese. It argues that its space program has earned a return of $2 on every dollar invested by the government, according to Nair. For example, its remote sensing satellites, which map the Earth's surface at a resolution of close to one meter, have helped find well water in dry regions, saving the government's drill boring program $100 million. And, while only a few years ago Indian space officials ruled out manned missions as too expensive and of dubious scientific value, they now speak—just like the Chinese—of mapping the moon for deposits of aluminum, silicon, uranium and titanium, probably with an eye to lunar mining. "I don't think we're in any race as far as the space program is concerned," says Nair. "We have our own national priorities, and based on those priorities we try to concentrate on developments which will benefit the people."
Moon shots for the masses? "If you ask people [in the space agencies], they will never acknowledge there is a competition," says Pallava Bagla, the author of "Destination Moon," a book about India's moon mission. "But subliminally there is a definite race there." The two sides don't talk about it because, says the Stimson Center's Michael Krepon, "for Beijing, you don't want to put New Delhi on the same playing field. For New Delhi, you don't want to acknowledge anxiety." Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, a member of Parliament and Nair's predecessor, says that in addition to luring Indian engineers from the high-paying IT divisions into astrophysics, the space program will "establish our credentials in the international community." It makes India a player.
The benefits of manned missions for the military are only somewhat clearer. Beijing's satellite shoot-down last year demonstrated the potential vulnerability of objects in space. Its space program—which is ultimately run by the Army—got its start when engineers took military rockets and stuck capsules on the tip. And despite Delhi's claims to the contrary, Western analysts suspect that booster technology developed for India's civilian space program is used by its military arm. But the quick way to strengthen military rockets is to fund them directly, not to fly moon missions. By the same token, ground-based and orbiting lasers would probably make better antisatellite weapons than missiles. "The U.S. military and the Russian military searched for years for good reasons to put military people in space and never found any," says John Logsdon, senior fellow at America's Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Still, a space race is a risky way to boost national status: after all, a catastrophic accident while attempting merely to repeat this step for mankind would be a historic humiliation. But the risk is not without rewards. Successful space flight is a kind of national advertisement for satellites and, more broadly, quality control. "[China's] manned space program has gone a long way to proving to potential customers that their products are safe," says Theresa Hitchens of Washington's Center for Defense Information. In these days of global competition, that's a message both China and India desperately want to send.