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Cultural Capital

26 September 2016

While the US space programme has been buffeted by recession, waning public interest and a sceptical White House, China’s spacefaring ambitions have gone into orbit.

Missions to Mars, lunar bases and space stations – once upon a time, these dreams were Nasa’s domain, the US eyeing our solar system as one might a deserted beauty spot they knew about before the crowds arrived. Times have changed though, and while the US space programme has been buffeted by recession, waning public interest and a sceptical White House, China’s spacefaring ambitions have gone, well, into orbit.

In 2015, the country conducted 19 successful space flights, and has a further 20 on the books this year, many paving the way for the launch of its own space station. Beijing’s home to a sophisticated space command centre, it’s built one of the world’s most advanced spaceports on Hainan Island and successfully upgraded its booster fleet with the inauguration of the Long March 7 rocket.

These are remarkable achievements for a country that didn’t take space exploration seriously until 1992, and they may yet result in a red flag being planted in the red soil of Mars. But just what’s fuelling this remarkable transformation, where’s it heading, and are we in the midst of a second space race?

On April 24, 2016, China celebrated its first ever space day, opening research facilities to students and visitors, encouraging schools to give lessons on astronautics, hosting talks up and down the country, and generally getting everybody to agree that space travel was a jolly good idea. All in all, it wasn’t a difficult sell. Astronauts such as Liu Yang – the first Chinese woman in space – are national heroes in China, and the ‘Jade Rabbit’ lunar landings in 2013 were watched live by millions of people across the country. Space has captured the national imagination, which isn’t surprising considering how big China’s dreaming.

“At the moment, most of their attention is fixed on building their space station,” says Brian Harvey, author of China In Space: The Great Leap Forward. “The first modules will be launched in 2018, and it’ll be done in the 2020s, about the time they launch a probe to Mars. After that, I think they’ll turn their attention to manned lunar missions in the 2030s and [manned] Mars missions in the 2040s. I know America tends to view China’s ambition in military form, but the one thing that has been missed in all of this is China’s scientific ambition. China has said, very clearly, they want to be the world’s most advanced scientific nation by 2050. They want half the scientific papers by stage to be published by Chinese scientists. It’s no longer enough for things to be made in China, they have to be invented in China.”

To understand why China associates space travel with innovation, one need only place a history book and a shopping catalogue side by side. Out of the Apollo programme, which landed Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969, came the seeds of the internet, GPS, mobile phone technology, microchips, Teflon, and dozens of other billion-dollar products that still shape our economy today. Look closely and you’ll realise that the stars in the night sky are actually diamonds, and they’re just waiting for somebody to fly up and collect them. China’s determined to fill its boots, but it has no intention of being reckless.

After the country’s first manned spaceflight in 2003, the next mission didn’t come until 2005. This was followed by a launch in 2008, then 2012 and 2013. Last month China launched its second-ever space lab, as part of a plan to have a permanently manned space station by 2020. Despite the increasing public clamour for interplanetary exploration, China’s space programme is happy to keep moving through the gears at its own pace, achieving its goals as one might tick off items on a shopping list. It’s not until you look at the individual groceries that you realise just how complicated a dinner they’re cooking.

“China’s space programme is divided into three steps,” says professor Yang Yuguang of the China Aerospace Science And Industry Corporation. “The first was to prove, simply, that we can go to space and come back safely. The second step was to test the EVA [extravehicular activity] suit and rendezvous and docking technologies. These are the fundamental technologies for future space flight. If we want to have a space station, if we want to walk on the moon, we have to test these technologies first. After that, we’re concerned with refuelling technologies. The space station has to have a very low orbit to avoid the dangerous radiation, but that means the aerodynamic drag will make its orbit decay quickly, so it needs propellants and a way of delivering them. That’s why we developed China’s first cargo ship.”

Such is the nature of space travel that solving a single problem requires you solve a dozen more first, with each one spiralling in complexity the further away from Earth you get, making a mission to Mars the equivalent of an enigma wrapped in a puzzle and stuffed inside an airless, black void.

Although the Chinese government has yet to formally commit to a manned mission to Mars, the country’s top scientists have been vocal in their desire to put a pin in the Red Planet – and the trajectory of the country’s research suggests they’ll get their wish, beginning with a satellite launch in 2020. Unfortunately, words on paper aren’t any guarantee of success. Less than 50 per cent of all missions to Mars succeed, and that’s just satellites. Sending humans is an entirely different, much more complex, proposition.

“When a person goes into orbit, almost immediately their body feels the effect of what we call a micro-gravity environment, or almost no gravity,” says Dr John Baker of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“The body starts responding instantly to that effect, and it actually mimics the ageing effect. Bones begin to decalcify and muscle tissue begins to degenerate, so in orbit crews are taking medication to reduce the effects and they’re doing a lot of exercise to keep their muscles strong. We don’t have any long duration space flight experience and we know that there are challenges associated with keeping people in good condition for what would be a minimum 540-day trip to Mars. The thing is, we really have no idea what would happen to the human body over that period. We’ve only had two people on the planet who’ve been in space for more than a year,” he adds.

It’s a problem the Chinese are well aware of, which is why in June 2016 they locked four astronauts – two men and two women – in a box. OK, not a box, a space capsule, which is only marginally larger than a box, though it was stuffed with food and fitted with water and air recycling technologies intended to support deep-space exploration. As an experiment, they had to live in the capsule for 180 days, mimicking a long spaceflight.

The results were staggering, and suggest a very different future to the one most of us imagined. It was discovered that men simply consume too much food, oxygen and water to make them viable candidates for a long space mission. Woman, on the other hand, proved perfect candidates. Jane T Kirk, and Mrs Spock, here we come. Other experiments are also underway aimed at shielding astronauts from deadly cosmic radiation, and reducing muscle degeneration using ancient Chinese medicine, including acupuncture.

At this point, with the massive hurdles clearly outlined, you may be wondering just why nations are competing on this project, rather than working together to make it happen. Well, United States law currently prohibits Nasa from working with China on space exploration for fear of espionage, which is why the Chinese ended up building their own space station right next door to the US-led International Space Station, though a report produced for the US government’s Economic And Security Review Commission indicates their position may soften in the future.

“China’s progress in space technologies, whether in relative or absolute terms, has implications for the US and its neighbours,” reads the report written by the University Of California. “Nevertheless, although China’s space programme may pose challenges for the United States and its space power neighbours, it may also present opportunities for scientific collaboration on the Earth’s environment and outer space. In addition, it may make human space flight safer by providing additional capabilities to rescue stranded or imperilled astronauts through the use of common docking apparatus.” That’s right, somebody watched The Martian. Way to go Matt Damon.

There’s also plenty of will for it to happen on the Chinese side. “The biggest problem [with a manned mission to Mars] is the money,” says professor Yang.

“Without the Cold War, without the competition of the Cold War, there would have been no lunar programme, but that situation cannot happen again. This problem can be solved by international cooperation. I know there are many reasons the US does not have cooperation with China, but to my mind, they’re all historical, so in the future, looking towards the bigger problems we have to solve, it could be a good time for the US and China to work together. The future of space exploration, including a mission to Mars, will be realised more quickly if the ESA [European Space Agency], China and the US can work together.”

In the meantime, China’s got plenty to be getting on with. One of its leading scientists recently suggested the country will one day establish a lunar research base, though he gave no particular timeframe, while a mission to the dark side of the moon – the first of its kind – is scheduled for the end of the year. Make no mistake, Mars is the destination, but China’s going to have a lot of fun first trying to get there.



Mission date: 2020
It’s not only China that’s aiming for Mars, the UAE has its own Red Planet objectives

By the Summer of 2020, the UAE will launch its own mission to Mars, courtesy of the “Hope” robotic space probe. Despite being the size of a small car, Hope will travel at 40,000kph – equating to a little under 25,000mph – making F1 seem positively pedestrian. Even so, it’s expected to take 200 days to reach the Red Planet, arriving in orbit to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE – a monumental achievement for such a young nation, especially considering it will be one of only nine countries to have reached Mars.

“Once it has achieved a stable orbit, Hope will spend two years studying the Martian atmosphere and climate, sharing all data with over 200 other institutions around the world”. While that mission description may sound a little dry, consider this: if the probe can explain why Mars’s atmosphere decayed, it can explain why the planet died – a question which scientists have been speculating over for years. Basically, if this was a mystery novel, Hope would be Sherlock Holmes, and it’s about to turn a magnifying glass on an entire planet.

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